All waste streams, if managed improperly, can have negative impacts on the health of humans and the environment, including via emissions to air and water. Waste also represents a loss of resources, such as the metals or other recyclable materials or energy it contains. Therefore, sound waste management is crucial to mitigate these impacts and losses. In the case of end-of-life equipments, a rapidly-increasing waste stream, management decisions must consider the high energy and material investment involved in their production, and their toxicity.
Rapid product innovation and replacement, plus economies of scale that have driven down prices means that there is burgeoning global demand for ICTs. For instance, by 2008 the billionth PCs was installed, a figure that could double by 2014. Emerging markets are increasingly contributing to this demand. For instance, some 14 million PCs were sold in China in 2005, adding to the more than 48 million TVs and nearly 20 million refrigerators sold there in 2001. Clearly, when these goods are no longer wanted, we have a significant waste challenge to meet.
End-of-life electronic equipment forms part of an exponentially-growing pile of global e-waste–all those unwanted televisions, washing machines, light bulbs, and myriad other electronics that have or could enter the waste stream. Numerous attempts are under way to stem the rising e-waste tide. While the specifics of each country’s approach differ, in the main all aim to increase the separate collection of e-waste and its recovery by reuse and recycling. However, of these two options, recycling is often the default end-of-life response, regardless of whether the equipment is at the end of its useful life. Reuse of functional equipment is the environmentally superior recovery option – especially considering the additional socio-economic benefits it reaps–and should be promoted as such in any waste management program.
Reuse has additional social and economic benefits. For example, PCs are vital for modern business function and can increase access to education and health services. The ‘digital divide’ contributes to the wealth gap and the expense of ICT is one major contributor to this divide. The lower purchase cost of refurbished equipment can make it available to those that could not afford it new, and can contribute to achieving economic and social development goals. Also, the reuse industry can create income-generating opportunities. UN estimates show that compared to PC disposal, reuse creates 296 more jobs for every 10,000 tonnes of material disposed of annually