Is your used computer donation really just E-waste dumping?

eWaste scrap collected in Karachi, Pakistan. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Want to donate your old computer to the developing world? Many recipient countries are saying ‘thanks but no thanks’.

So you just bought a new laptop. What to do with the old one?

For many who donate computers to organizations like as InterConnection, a Seattle based non-profit, the cause seems simple enough. Take your old computer, fix it up, and give it to those in need abroad.

A couple of years ago, most of the used computers that were donated at Charles Brennick’s shop on Stone Way North were destined to go overseas.

But today he estimates less than 5% are exported.

InterConnection, which Brennick founded in 1999 after working in the ecotourism business in Costa Rica, accepts donations of used computer equipment for reuse. Workers repair the equipment, and then resell them to NGOs, government agencies, and other organizations involved in social programs to provide technology access to those in need.

Used computer monitors imported from overseas are polished for retail at an electronics market in Karachi, Pakistan. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)Used computer monitors imported from overseas are polished for retail at an electronics market in Karachi, Pakistan. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

It’s a single customer—a technology consultant for nonprofits called TechSoup—that is ordering most of InterConnection’s refurbished computer supply these days, so Brennick has little incentive to search for new customers abroad.

But there are signs the market is changing for reuse exports in general. As reuse and recycling organizations crop up around the world, and groups work towards a sustainable e-waste trade, the mission of increasing global technology access is changing.

An example of InterConnection’s past work abroad is a shipment to Kerala, India in 2010. According to Brennick, Homes of Hope India purchased over 200 PCs for use at an orphanage, paying $50 each in addition to approximated $2,500 for the container to get them there.

Paul Wilkes, U.S. coordinator for Homes of Hope, said it worked out to about $100 a computer factoring in customs fees. The computers are still in use today, he said, “a few were lemons, but not enough to worry about . . . we would do it again.”

If there is a need.

Carrying used desktop PC towers to a technology market in Karachi, Pakistan. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)Carrying used desktop PC towers to a technology market in Karachi, Pakistan. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Shipping costs aren’t prohibitively expensive for most parts of the world, even India when there is enough volume to bring down to the price per unit. But in countries where local e-recycling organizations are available, it starts to make a lot more sense for charities to look locally for their technology needs.

In Chile, there is a government-sponsored initiative for computer recycling and reuse for schools and other organizations called Chilenter. Brennick from InterConnection calls it one of the best programs in the world for recycling computers and distributing them to organizations in need. As Chilenter fulfils much of the demand in Chile, InterConnection finds less of a role.

Import bans are another challenge for suppliers of refurbished computers from the United States. India’s ban on used computer imports, enacted in 2012, means Homes of Hope can no longer find a resource in InterConnection.

A Times of India report leading up to the ban charged that companies in the developed world were using donations to NGOs and charities as a pretext for e-waste dumping. E-waste is toxic, and can be less expensive to scrap in a country with less stringent recycling and handling requirements. It remains a concern of environmental groups around the globe.

Charles Brannick, founder of InterConnection, works in a lab at the non-profit's headquarters on Stone Way N. A server box like the one seen, left, is capable of running virtual desktops for up to 20 monitors. (Photo by Chris Swanicke)Charles Brennick, founder of InterConnection, works in a lab at the non-profit’s headquarters on Stone Way N. Though few InterConnection products go overseas these days, used computer donations still have a positive impact here in the U.S.  (Photo by Chris Swanicke)

Nonprofits are a minor player in the used electronics exporting game, and their focus is typically on a targeted humanitarian purpose such as the orphanage in India. It’s unlikely anyone would accuse InterConnection of using its work as a pretext for e-waste dumping. But reuse donations still draw attention from environmentalists.

Greenpeace, in a 2009 report, said of reuse donations that “the practice is causing serious problems because the old products are dumped after a short period of use in areas that are unlikely to have hazardous waste facilities.”

Brennick vehemently defends his company’s, and his industry’s environmental record.

“InterConnection only ships fully tested and refurbished equipment.” He says, pointing out that computer manufacturers ship millions of new units to developing countries, so they should face the same disposal questions.

A huge electronics market in Pakistan, selling both new and used computers. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)A huge electronics market in Pakistan, selling both new and used computers. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

“Internally generated electronics [purchased new], is by far a bigger issue than refurbished equipment shipped to underserved communities.”

In other words, e-waste dumping from the US to developing countries may still be an issue, but it pales in comparison with the domestic e-waste consumers in these countries are producing themselves.

Brennick sees that the practice of exporting used computers from the U.S. may be replaced entirely in the future.

“There is a massive demand for technology in developing countries,” Brennick says. But that doesn’t mean the supply will be coming from Seattle. “They’re not necessarily going to want our hand-me-downs.”

Chris Swanicke is a Gig Harbor native and freelance writer currently based out of Southeast Asia. As a writer he covers topics related to regional affairs and travel for consumer magazines.You can find his work in various publications around the globe.