Business: give up yer aul sims

1 Nov 2007

If measuring carbon footprints and sizing up green technology leaves you baffled, don’t worry. Corporate social responsibility can begin with one simple gesture: give up old electronic equipment.

Cormac Lynch (pictured) is CEO of Dublin-based charity, Camara, which recycles computers for schools in Africa.

He estimates that two million PCs could potentially find their way into landfills within the next five years unless businesses choose to donate or refurbish them.

When Lynch visited Ethiopia three years ago he saw a huge need for access to computers and technology.

“You had teachers that had never seen a computer before in their lives.

“When I came back I started to notice lots of PCs lying in skips and I thought, ‘This can’t be right’. So I began phoning around and gathering together old machines.”

With just three people managing Camara and 120 volunteers, the charity has already managed to send almost 3,500 reconditioned PCs out to Eastern Africa.

Camara is gaining more business and corporate clients as time goes on, counting AIB as one of its biggest: it donated over 1,000 machines recently.

“We’ve worked very hard to get some of the government departments involved in this as well. We have the Department of Education and Foreign affairs, but there are still quite a few who destroy their computer equipment and that just shouldn’t happen,” says Lynch.

When it comes to getting old IT equipment from the storeroom to the recycling facility Lynch thinks inertia plays a large role in a business’s reluctance.

“It takes some education because when an organisation has a system in place it can be very slow to change. Someone from within has to champion the donation route.”

If you think two million PCs worth of potential landfill sounds crazy then consider this: It is estimated that 15 million unused mobile phones are sitting in drawers all over Ireland.

These discarded phones are bread and butter for the Jack & Jill Foundation, an organisation that raises money for care of infants born with severe developmental delays.

Receiving only 19pc of its funding from the Government, the Foundation has to raise the other €1.7m through the private sector and does much of this through collecting and selling secondhand mobile phones and, to a lesser degree, printer cartridges.

With a freepost address and freepost envelopes for sending handsets Jonathan Irwin, CEO of Jack & Jil,l mulls over the hoarding of these old handsets.”There is a blockage between somebody saying ‘I must do that’ and actually filling the envelope,” he says.

The reason old mobiles are so important is the huge reseller market in places like Hong Kong where Irwin describes the skyscraper offices filled with these businesses.

“The phone you give me today could possibly be in use in Karachi, Zambia, or Ecuador within six weeks.”

Jack & Jill receives phones from all sectors. The only businesses not involved are the phone companies, says Irwin.

“I have met them all and they are all extremely polite but they all intimate that they have charitable partners of their own.

“One or two of them have been very positive about it until they talk to their accounts department.”

Michelle Kearns, IT developer for Caredoc, a doctors-on-call service in Carlow, heard about Jack & Jill in May and has been rounding up spare handsets on its behalf ever since.

“Corporate social responsibility is very important. It is so easy to recycle within SMEs and information on how to do this can be easily passed around in a firm of our size.

“Plus when companies are smaller, if one person begins recycling, it’s just as easy for others to follow their lead,” says Kearns.

Caredoc recycles all of its IT equipment, donating old computers to the local all-girls secondary school, St Leos.

However, Kearns thinks that cost, convenience and lack of information are major roadblocks to some SMEs.

“People often don’t realise they can send equipment off for free or have a collection service if necessary. Mostly I think it’s down to the initial set-up of the process.

“Once that has been integrated into the working environment it becomes part of a routine,” she adds.

Companies have certain rights and responsibilities. “There are obligations for companies to get rid of their old IT equipment,” says Elizabeth Barry, compliance manager with WEEE Ireland.

“There isn’t a law saying you have to get rid of your old computer; you can leave it in a storeroom if you want.

“Certainly what you can’t do is throw it out your back door into a ditch. Also from a corporate social responsibility aspect, if you’re getting rid of equipment you want to be sure it is going to where it should be,” says Barry.

Sometimes getting rid of computers, monitors, printers and the like is not the issue. A business might want to see if it can save money by reusing equipment from within.

Jean Cox-Kearns, take-back and recycling manager for Dell Ireland, explains that if a business has IT equipment no longer of use in certain departments it can send details to Dell for an appraisal.

“We will determine whether it has a re-saleable value or whether it is only suitable for recycling.

“A business can look to refurbishing or redeploying it within another part of their organisation if possible.”

Larger organisations may have been refurbishing, recycling and reusing for years but when it comes to SMEs Cox-Kearns sees an awareness gap.

“When you get to the smaller companies they tend not to have the resources that understand and have a good deal of awareness around the environment and corporate social responsibility.”

Barry puts it an even simpler way: “It is important to make people think before they throw something out – make them question if it can go on for a second life somewhere else.”

Louth businessman’s reclaim to fame

What began as a teenage side project ended up netting Patrick McCormick the position of eBay Ireland’s Seller of the Year, simply by turning secondhand computers into cash as Dr-Computer Biz.

“Since I was 16 or 17 I’ve been buying computers, doing them up and selling them in the local newspaper. It was always a hobby of mine,” says McCormick.

Now refurbishing computers is McCormick’s full-time job. He is currently scouting out warehouses in a move to take on more employees and expand his ever-growing business.

McCormick’s main source is ex-lease computers but laptops mainly, from companies in the UK and they are all at least a year old.

Businesses may be wary about receiving a secondhand computer, being that the original one-year manufacturing warranty will have passed, but McCormick says the main reason laptops break down in the first place is that the only moving part, hard drive, breaks and can be replaced easily.

Dr Computer Biz puts the machines through several stages of information wiping before completely re-installing software.

“For peace of mind it might not be a bad idea to remove the hard drive before selling or giving laptops away.”

He says that often firms and individuals buy brand new super fast computers when it is not needed.

“Half the time you’ll find that it is only for typing up documents and using spreadsheets,” he says.

By Marie Boran