by Alex Forrest4 minute read
COVID-19 has not only changed the way we work, but also the way we teach. My partner is a schoolteacher, and I’ve witnessed up close the challenges secondary schools are experiencing in providing continuity in education. A large part of this is a struggle to obtain the appropriate information and communications technology (ICT) resources to ensure both staff and pupils are properly equipped for virtual learning.
Here, the disparity between private and state schools is clear. Private schools, in which most staff and pupils are equipped with good working laptops and tablets, have been able to offer continued learning since the start of lockdown. Conversely, many schools in deprived areas of the UK do not have the budgets to provide staff with decent ICT hardware, let alone students. Many families are simply unable to afford the luxury of having computers or tablets in the home – many will rely on one smartphone between them. But what was once a luxury becomes a necessity for seamless virtual learning, and where children are unable to get online, there is a high risk of them falling behind.
While it seems the risk of limited or no pupil access to ICT resources was identified earlier this year, many schools have been left short of the ICT they need. In the absence of available funding to plug the ICT resource gaps in schools, we need to ask whether an alternative approach is needed.
Works well with others
During the pandemic there have been many examples of communities pulling together, and in some local areas this has included donations of unwanted ICT equipment. In this spirit, there is a great opportunity for ICT users (corporates, public sector) and technology providers to step in and work together as part of the ‘Big Society’. (Whatever became of David Cameron’s promise of ten years ago?)
From a circular economy perspective, I see this as an opportunity to scale up circular solutions for ICT hardware – the demand is clearly there. There is significant potential to ensure that higher volumes of ICT reaching end-of-first life are redirected from the waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) recycling stream to the WEEE reuse, repair and remanufacturing stream, extending the equipment’s life, while providing schools with the resources they so badly need.
From Eunomia’s experience of working in this area, we know that:
- Many corporate and public sector clients will often default to a WEEE recycling contract without being aware of – or considering the financial, carbon and wider social benefits of – the possibility of extending the lifetime of a laptop or computer through reuse, repair and remanufacture.
- Public sector organisations rarely purchase refurbished or remanufactured ICT devices. This can be due to concerns or perceptions of lower performance and quality, despite research indicating remanufactured ICT delivers 97% of the performance relative to new ICT at a reduced cost. Therefore, much of the supply of remanufactured laptops could be utilised by schools, which are unlikely to be concerned about the 3% performance difference, but will be keen to capture the potential financial savings.
There is potential for a range of actors in this space to work collaboratively. For example, corporates seeking to understand how they might do more in the midst of the pandemic could donate ICT hardware for refurbishment, thereby supporting their local schools and communities. Any concerns around data security can be overcome by working directly with a certified third party WEEE refurbishment contractor that provides data wiping services.
There are further social benefits to be gained here, as research has shown that reuse and refurbishment activities create ten times the number of jobs than recycling activities. This employment benefit is all the more pertinent within the context of green recovery from the economic impacts of the pandemic, and building back stronger, more sustainable infrastructure.
Not school policy
From a policy perspective, there is also a broader need to strengthen the drivers for the reuse of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE). Unlike some other countries, the UK has shied away from separate ‘preparing for reuse’ targets, rolling reuse in with recycling. Consequently, there is currently little incentive within the overall WEEE system (aside from in business-to-business asset management) for WEEE to be collected (carefully) for reuse, and many working gadgets are hoarded for years until they are unusable.
Recent Eunomia research for Defra explored the essential characteristics for a successful Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme for EEE, highlighting countries such as France and Finland, where WEEE compliance schemes are obligated to contract with reuse organisations. By moving towards a system which includes a separate target for preparing WEEE for reuse, this should in turn facilitate the kinds of formal connections and procedures needed to increase the diversion of reusable EEE/WEEE from waste treatment.
One such formal connection could be corporate and public sector organisations working together with WEEE producer compliance organisations, and WEEE refurbishment and remanufacturing providers, in a system that achieves mutually beneficial WEEE reuse back into schools.
Still, even without waste management policy driving such a relationship, the benefits for all parties – and especially our struggling schools – of giving ICT a second life are clear to see.