September 18, 2007 11:55 AM PDT

HP backs African recycling research

Hewlett-Packard is funding a project to investigate how electronic waste generated by African companies, as well as material from Western businesses that is dumped illegally, can be disposed of in a safer and more environmentally friendly way.

Announced on Tuesday, the project will address the health and environmental problems caused by tech equipment being harvested by untrained and unskilled individuals. HP would not disclose to what tune it is funding the project, but Kirstie McIntyre, HP's environmental take-back compliance manager, said the amount would be in the "hundreds of thousands of pounds."

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) estimates that 50 million tons of electronic waste is generated worldwide each year. The waste usually contains valuable elements such as gold and copper, so informal and unregulated systems have sprung up in Africa to make use of these resources.

The HP-backed project aims to investigate how these informal processes operate, and improve them from an environmental and health perspective, according to McIntyre.

"This project is not about putting a European-style recycling system in place, as we know that won't work--a state-of-the-art factory just won't get used," said McIntyre. Instead the project aims to develop a "blueprint for electronic-waste management in Africa," in conjunction with the informal processes that already exist.

The initial phase of the process will kick off with a pilot project in South Africa and investigations into how e-waste is treated in Morocco, Kenya, Tunisia and Senegal. South Africa was chosen to receive the bulk of the project's focus to begin with, because one of the two organizations implementing the project using the HP funding--the Swiss Institute for Materials Science and Technology--has been working in the region for some time already.

HP's interest in the issue of how e-waste is dealt with in Africa is motivated by the fact that, according to McIntyre, the company has recently seen sales in the region grow dramatically. However, unlike Europe, where the vendor has systems in place to take back IT equipment at the end of its life, there are no such schemes in place in Africa.

The lack of any e-waste-specific legislation in Africa, such as the EU's recently introduced WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment) directive (PDF) , means HP has no obligation to promote the safe disposal of its equipment in the region. However, it is possible that such legislation could be enforced eventually, and action such as the e-waste project announced by HP this week would help the company in negotiations around such a law. The company, as with firms in the tech sector, is also keen to be seen as environmentally responsible.

The other partner in the project is the Global Digital Solidarity Fund (DSF), which claims to be the only global organization entirely dedicated to reducing the digital divide. "By addressing the waste issue, and knowing that the equipment itself will not have a detrimental effect at the end of its useful life, we can concentrate on promoting the use of IT as a development tool in Africa," added Cisse Kane, DSF e-waste project manager.

Although HP is co-operating with the DSF on the issue of e-waste, the IT vendor operates a policy of not providing reused PCs from the developed countries for use in the developing world. Kane admitted that most African countries cannot afford new IT equipment but can make good use of refurbished machines.

HP's McIntyre said the company's present stance is based on the fact that some organizations that purport to send refurbished machines to the U.K. are dumping unusable tech in Africa. But she conceded that if the current project is successful in improving the recycling systems in Africa, HP may reconsider its ban on making the hundreds of old machines it collects in Europe and the U.S. through its take-back schemes available for a second life in Africa.

Computers for Schools Kenya, which is based in Nairobi and takes PCs donated from U.K. businesses via charities such as Computer Aid International, is an organization that would benefit from HP lifting its ban on sending PCs to Africa. The organization has distributed around 10,000 refurbished PCs to schools and colleges in Kenya--most of which could never afford a new machine.

Andrew Donoghue of ZDNet UK reported from London.

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