Sunday, August 02, 2009

Recycling Computers

Another lesson we learned from working with developing communities is that it is rarely worth it to try to recycle old computers and related equipment such as printers.

Sometimes when people purchase new computers, printers, etc., to replace their old ones, they donate the equipment to charities. It is done with goodness in their hearts; and charities gladly receive them. Even if the computers are not very fast, and do not have larger amounts of memory or disk space, they should still be useful for email, word processing, browsing on the Internet, right? It turns out not to be so simple.

Most often these computers have certain problems or are simply not working at all. The operating system may need to be restored, but the original disks may not be available. To purchase a new operating system takes money - Windows is VERY expensive. And the old computer would mostly likely require additional memory or a larger hard disk to support a newer operating system; or the CPU is simply not fast enough. And anytime you connect a computer to the Internet, you must install a firewall and anti-virus software/hardware. So the charity will have to spend some significant amount of money in order to make the computer usable; and they have to hire someone to do the work. The old computer may be free, but the enhancements and the required labour is not.

You may think that charities may be able to find some volunteers to donate their labour. However, fixing old computers is not something that everyone can do; people who have the skills are typically busy at their jobs. And where are you going to find such skills in remote Gansu, Qinghai, and Inner Mongolia, or rural Hubei, India, central Africa for that matter?

What about old printers? Have you tried to locate drivers (software programs for computers to link with the printers), and printer ink for old printers? And do you realize how expensive the inks are?

So, before we donate old computers to charities, please stop and think whether these machines are genuinely still useful. Or we are actually making the charities spend valuable money and manpower just to make them usable.

There are organizations willing to put tremendous amounts of efforts into refurbishing old computers for use by under-privileged people. I salute them.

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