Reducing waste – realising value

The issue of e-waste has recently come to the fore with a report from the UN warning that the world…

The issue of e-waste has recently come to the fore with a report from the UN warning that the world could face mountains of electronic waste in the coming decade. With this in mind Fraser Young, Managing Partner, MF Communications, explains how organisations, by reducing their communications waste mountains, can realise value from their old telecoms systems.

Europe leads the way in waste management legislation with the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, but very few UK businesses have a policy for dealing with surplus equipment. Much ends up in landfill, resulting in hazardous waste, when in fact it often still holds value and could be remanufactured and resold in good or as new condition. Europe’s e-waste discarded electronic products and components  is increasing at three to five per cent a year; three times faster than the total waste stream.

Market studies indicate that communication systems are the biggest contributors to electronic waste. At the heart of any global corporation, communications plays a key part in making money, and technology is constantly being developed to enhance this. New, cutting-edge systems and applications are being introduced all the time and this leads to a vast turnover of equipment. Hence, surplus and redundant equipment is a real issue in the telecoms sector.

Electronic waste is a particular problem for the environment due to the materials used in the equipment, such as lead, cadmium, beryllium, plastics, gold, copper and palladium. There are up to 40 separate chemical elements incorporated into electronic waste, all of which are highly hazardous to the environment if not disposed of or recycled correctly. Throughout industrialised nations there is an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude, with e-waste being collected for recycling, exported to areas such as China, India or Pakistan, where it ends up in recycling plants, but more often, on waste land. Workers taking apart the old machines are handling toxic chemicals that can pose serious health problems.

Moreover the aforementioned UN report details dumpsites that are frequented by children, who are subsequently exposed to the hazardous materials contained within telecoms equipment. The UN report has led some developing nations to initiate bans on the import of all second hand technical equipment  to the detriment of organisations in these countries who benefit from affordable, fully functional refurbished equipment. An understandable reaction though, given that old equipment illegally destined for dumpsites gets labelled by unscrupulous firms as “second hand” to get it through border controls.

The European Union has set global standards for government directing businesses on dealing with ewaste responsibly. The European Commission is currently revising the WEEE Directive to ensure it is relevant and enforceable for each member state. Eventually companies will have no choice other than to dispose of their redundant equipment responsibly; failure to comply will result in penalties including monetary fines. Organisations in Europe have little excuse for not having a strategy for their surplus equipment and a WEEE policy, but even big corporates and carriers in the UK are only slowly becoming aware that this is an issue for them.

Rather than planning for what will happen to equipment once it becomes redundant, some businesses call the first firm they pick out in the telephone directory to take it away, without checking what they will do with it, to what standards they will refurbish it to, by what methods they will recycle it, and most importantly  where the waste will end up. Some believe the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) will pay to take it back, but in reality this does not happen because it is not financially viable to the vendors. All used equipment should be offered for sale as value can be realised from something the client thinks is worthless.

Globally now there is a vibrant trade in refurbished telecoms equipment, which has been led by the USA. However, there are many used or refurbished equipment suppliers that simply clean and possibly test it, and the end result can be very poor quality. Businesses in the UK can choose between very lowcost, but also lesser quality refurbished parts and slightly higher cost but still lower than brand new products that have been remanufactured, tested and issued with a warranty. With this model, spare parts, telephones, PSUs, cables, consoles and many other items are remanufactured to look like new and are supplied boxed, with new cords, remade plastic housing and literature packs.

The cost factor is an obvious driver for businesses buying refurbished equipment over new. Another is the long lead times experienced with OEMs. This was a real issue for the FIFA U17 World Cup in October 2009 in Nigeria. The organising committee did not release the funds for the new telecom network work until four weeks before the tournament was due to start, which gave no time for the PBX network to be ordered from the OEM as they needed eight to 12 weeks to arrange delivery. UK business can no longer afford to keep its head in the sand over surplus telecoms equipment.

The time has come to take responsibility for ensuring old equipment does not end up in landfill and to implement a WEEE policy. If the challenge of recycling telecoms systems seems too great to contend with, a quality refurbishing company can work as a partner to help devise a plan. One that is ISO14001 accredited will ensure that the whole process impacts as little as possible on the environment. It is possible to do the right thing AND realise some value from what is considered redundant technology.