Irish outfit takes a holistic approach to WEEE

A successful project in Ireland has shown how a holistic approach to dealing with waste from the IT sector can not only meet WEEE objectives but surpass them.

Speaking at the Irish Water, Waste & Environment/Irish Recycling Waste & Management exhibitons last week, Jose Ospina, project manager of the Dublin-based Heatsun initiative explained how his team had taken a wider look at waste.

"Waste computers are the fastest growing waste stream in the EU," he told delegates.

"At the moment most are being exported to developing countries or melted down.

"That kind of recycling is a very energy intensive process and doesn't really make any savings and they could be put to better use by reusing them."

Project Heatsun has taken a multi-faceted approach to this problem, looking at ways to not only reduce waste but to address social issues in Ireland at the same time.

Mr Ospina outlined Ireland's digital divide, with only around 10% of those on low incomes having regular access to IT while for those on higher incomes that figure was around 90%.

Reconditioned computers using useful components from obsolete machines could help bridge this gap, he said.

Project Heatsun is a partnership of the private and public sector and community groups, under the auspices of the EU's LIFE environment programme.

It takes a holistic approach looking at ways to reduce, reuse and recycle computer waste.

To reduce waste the project has undertaken research and development work to produce a Green Computer that attempts to cut out as much waste as possible during the manufacturing process and use environmentally-sensitive materials.

The resulting machine, with distinctive wooden casing, looks set to become the first computer to receive the EU's Ecolabel and has had to meet strict criteria on energy efficiency, emissions, noise pollution and safe components.

Another arm of the project has been busy recycling old machines and their components, while helping to boost the local economy.

Creating around 40 jobs for the long-term unemployed and school leavers having difficulty finding work, the project has set up a workshop where broken or outdated computers are reconditioned to create working machines.

Many of the reconditioned machines are then used by community groups and other social enterprises, with the remainder being sold to the public, often those on low incomes.

There have also been efforts to work with business to look at less wasteful procurement models so existing machines can be upgraded rather than replaced when they come to the end of their useful life.

The project has not been without its problems, however, though these have provided valuable lessons in themselves.

Marketing the reconditioned machines has uncovered a need to address cultural hang-ups over second hand goods, which are often perceived as lower quality.

"The problem is most people think that anything that's reused is by its nature inferior,"

"This is obviously not true, as a high-spec reused computer is better than a low-spec new one."

The project also found it had to experiment with different ways to structure it collections.

Initially local authorities organised the collection of the IT equipment as they had the experience and infrastructure in place for waste collection.

A series of collection points were set up around the city, usually sharing the site of established recycling bring bins, but this proved ineffective.

"Most of the equipment left there was beyond repair, either because it had been ruined before people left it or because it had been exposed to the elements," said Mr Ospina.

"What we were getting from the civic amenity sites was unfortunately way below our expectations so now we're increasingly looking towards corporate sources as the most reliable way."

The project was well established before the WEEE directive was implemented in Ireland and acts as a beacon of how things could be made to work once it is adopted elsewhere.

by Sam Bond



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