Monday, 2 March 2015

Keep our old WEEE Out of Africa



Let me get one thing straight. I am not against charity. I give when I can. I know the words to the original Band Aid single. I am just as much of a sucker for a hard luck story as anyone else, I want to cure cancer, save the donkeys, the elephants and the tigers, feed starving children, eliminate heart disease and fund more guide dogs for the blind.

But I do not want to be conned. I do not want to fund chief executives on large salaries or huge lobbying operations that take donations and use them to fund their own political points of view. So if I donate, I do some research first. I am interested in the administrative percentage coming off the bottom line.

Many private schools are technically charities. I find that hard to understand. And many charities seem to operate contrary to other things in life, such as the law. Say it is for charity and people go all dewy-eyed and weak at the knees. A skilled fund-raiser can make his or her cause sound like the best thing since sliced bread and too many people fall for it. Eton does not need a tax break.

There are a number of charities involved in collecting and re-purposing IT equipment. They do not want to recycle it; they want to get it abroad where some child will derive great benefit from it for the rest of its useful life. The only trouble is they don’t say what happens then, and they are not too hot on how it gets there or what actually happens to your data in the meantime.

But let’s leave the data issues aside for today. I am taking the day off data as it were. Let’s talk about the environment for once, let’s talk about why we have WEEE regulations in Europe, and let’s ask a few pertinent questions of some of these charities, shall we?

WEEE regulations essentially force manufacturers to make their electrical equipment sustainable and ask them to pay for the processes involved. Which of course means we all pay in the purchase price but that is also an argument for another day. But the idea is everything can be recycled and a whole industry has grown up around the disposal of old WEEE. Yes, I am a nappy for your WEEE I suppose. Not a pleasant thought.

The overriding objective is to keep the raw materials of electrical equipment out of landfill. And the oft quoted statistic is that 80% of the environmental damage from electrical equipment is caused during manufacture, so ‘best practise’ is to extend the lifecycle.

So at this point I am on the same page as these charitable concerns. Keeping any redundant equipment going for a bit longer is a good thing. Regardless of whether it comes from a consumer or from a business, getting another few months, or ideally years, out of a computer is what we are all trying to do.

But you have to think about where it is going to end up when it does finally die. Don’t you? Maybe we don’t? According to a report I read recently 190,000 tonnes of European WEEE, or roughly half of the amount we recycle in this country every year, ends up in Ghana alone. Are these charitable donations part of that figure, or are they an addition to it?

How come it is legal to take WEEE from the UK and export it anyway? That is getting around the regulations, and believe me you can make a profit that way. Lots of stuff we cannot sell here can be put on a pallet and sold for cash, no questions asked. I am told the going rate is £200 a pallet. Are you telling me these charities have got government approval to do this? If so, why? Why would the UK government condone something that ends up harming the environment somewhere else? Is this NIMBY-ism gone insane?

I am asking a lot of questions here, and I don’t know the answers. But I have asked them of several of the charities concerned. If I get a response, I will let you know I promise. So far I have been waiting 4 days for any sort of respoinse. But can we agree that this all smells a little fishy?

One charity, a big one, talks about taking computers up to eight years old. Eight years? What are these African kids using them for? Minesweeper? I am a bit old fashioned to be honest. I would like my own son to know how to use a pen, hone an essay and quote a bit of Shakespeare...all things I managed without a computer in the seventies. Access to information technology is not a prerequisite of a good education. If it was Steven Hawking would not be a genius. He may need a bit of technological help these days but back then he was restricted to pen and paper. So I would have thought there are a number of things African children need before a second hand computer that will only work on an operating system the first world discarded five years ago. Medicine and food for a start, decent teachers, school buildings and sanitation would probably help too.

But what Africa certainly does not need is hundreds of thousands of tonnes of our waste being sent out there. If this is being done legally, it’s a disgrace. If it is being done illegally why are ‘charities’ being allowed to get away with this?

I genuinely hope I get a response from these people, and that they are above board and doing things properly. I hope they say they take them back at end of life and dispose ethically. Because if they do not say that, it is yet another monstrous carbuncle on the face of this good earth, as HRH Prince Charles once said, admittedly about another subject.

Someone will undoubtedly argue that if it is working it is not WEEE. But the only reason it is being given away is that someone is throwing it out, which makes it WEEE. The fact that we then recycle it, or rather re-market it, is just part of the process.

I feel a campaign coming on, do you?