When they are no longer new, it is not uncommon for many types of used electronic devices to make their way to developing countries after being originally bought and used in the wealthier places of the world. The environmental impact of the electronic waste (E-Waste) produced by these devices can be significant, especially if electronics are solely being imported for the purpose of recycling the useable materials within them.
For instance, sometimes the plastic tubing around computer wires is burned to access copper metals within them, which releases harmful chemicals into the atmosphere. Other computer parts can leech toxic materials into landfills. These concerns have led some policy experts to believe that there should be a ban on the export of used electronics to developing countries where informal “recycling” of their parts takes place.
But how often are electronic devices instead used for their actual purpose by people in developing countries? Is there a bigger demand in the developing world for used electronics rather than new ones?
While some people might think the answer to these questions is obvious (people like myself who live in developing countries), surprisingly, the subject has not been thoroughly researched in part because of how incredibly challenging it can be to keep track of electronics as they travel from place to place.
Thanks to a recently published study in the Journal of Environmental Science Technology, however, we now have at least have one point of reference in regard to what happens with used computers in the South American country of Peru—where I currently live.
Peru was selected as a case study to help answer these questions because it’s one of the few countries in the world that maintains a database about computers that are imported to the country—and whether or not they are new and used. Peru has also a experienced a recent economic boom and has weathered the global financial crisis considerably well compared to other countries across the world, making it a developing country where more and more people can afford used electronics.
The study provides this helpful extra context:
“Rates of PCs ownership in developed countries are high, for example, 80 PCs per 100 inhabitants in the U.S. in 2006. Mass adoption of computers is also emerging in the developing world, with greater increases in major cities. Computer lifespan is decreasing with time, data on the United States academic and business sectors suggests a lifespan of 6 years from 1985 to 2000, 5.4 years in 2000, and 3 years in 2007… PCs ownership in Peru is growing, for example in the residential sector ownership increased from 8.0 in 2005 to 13.8 PCs per 100 households in 2007. In Lima’s residential sector PCs ownership grew from 16.6 in 2005 to 25.9 PCs per 100 households in 2007.”
As written by the researchers, the study’s key finding was that that “87-88% of imported used computers had a price higher than the ideal recycle value of constituent materials. The official trade in end-of-life computers is thus driven by reuse as opposed to recycling.”
While I personally think there are some big limitations to the researchers’ assertion that their results suggest that almost all imported used computers are actually used as “computers” (rather than imported for their materials), I admire their willingness to recognize these limitations in their article. As someone who lives in Peru, I also tend to agree with their conclusion that the environmental impact (so far) of used computers in Peru is minimized by the dramatic demand among Peruvians for used, inexpensive computers.
One of the things that I have learned while living in Peru, is that there is a vibrant trade of people who fix electronics for their day jobs. While in the more developed parts of the world someone might throw away an old walkman, radio, or cd player if it breaks, in Peru most people first attempt to get it repaired. This attitude is mostly driven by economics and the daunting expense of buying new electronics. I wonder if as the economic continues to improve in Peru this frugalness and re-use and repair of electronics will decrease.
But the good news from this study about the importation of used computers to Peru is that it suggests the environmental impact of these items is, so far, considerably lower than what might have been expected. While this is encouraging news, we shouldn’t forget that with more electronics there is also the matter of increasing demand of electricity (and in turn more global emissions).
But as many of us forget, computers are seen by many people in Peru and other developing countries as items of great power. Computers are where many people are finding the jobs of the future, putting us all on a level playing field to succeed and prosper economically in a global market.
And in this line, the study also makes one final and important point about Peru’s thrifty reuse of computers: it is a good source of jobs itself. The researchers write that “as we have argued elsewhere end-of-life management of computers can be viewed not only as an environmental problem but also as an opportunity with social and economic benefits for developing countries such as Peru.”
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