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Recognising the rotten side of recycling

The illegal trade in old IT is dangerous and it exploits people and the environment. With better rules and more imagination, it could benefit everyone

The IT industry's obsession with upgrades, invention and novelty is hard on the environment. That's one reason recycling has been sold as the antidote for the worst of this addiction; we can upgrade safe in the knowledge that our old, forgotten tech is broken down and fed back into the start of the supply chain that ends up with the latest tech.

Hardware vendors have evolved manufacturing process to near science fictional levels of efficiency, but plenty are still stuck in the Victorian era when it comes to product disposal. True, Dell, HP and even some of the smaller players have done a lot of work around recycling, thanks to some heavy persuasion from the EU in the shape of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive (WEEE), but there is still an awful lot to do.

Two surveys released over the last six months have pulled back the plush carpet of vendor environmental responsibility to reveal the dry rot of the black market in discarded IT waste of rich Western countries. The latest of the studies, "The Digital Dump: Exporting High-Tech Re-use and Abuse to Africa", by watchdog Basel Action Network shows the nature of the problem.. The report claims that US and European manufacturers are dumping computers and other electrical goods in Africa under the guise of recycling or charity donations. The Nigerian Computer Dealers Business Association said as much as 75 percent of the imported used computer equipment is junk.

Using developing nations as a conveniently distant, profitably under-regulated landfill is deplorable, especially under the cover of charity. Yet stopping it, even if possible, would create as many problems as it would solve.

The IT vendors should invest and support what remains their responsibility. The problem does not lie with recycling itself but rather the conditions in which it is being done which leads to toxic heavy metals being released into the workplace and the surrounding environment. The right infrastructure, facilities and training will prevent this from happening and give a much-needed boost to local economies. IT companies should treat the workers and environment at the far end of their supply chain with as much respect as they do those closer to home