Bridging the digital divide: using e-waste to address digital exclusion

The UK produces tonnes of unnecessary e-waste every year. It is time for old computers to have a second life and empower disadvantaged communities

Over the course of the pandemic the issue of digital exclusion has been thrust into the spotlight as people who live in digital poverty have been increasingly left out in a world where everything from work and school, to doctors’ appointments and socialising has become digital-first. 

According to data from Ofcom, 6% of UK households were described as “offline” in March 2021, with its research finding that digital exclusion is “more disempowering than ever”. Across the UK, 14.9 million adults have a ‘low’ digital engagement score - meaning they do not use email or online banking, according to Lloyds Bank’s 2021 Consumer Digital Index. Among people who claim Universal Credit, including for disability, this proportion rises to 35%, while there is also a geographic split with 33% put in the ‘low’ category in Wales but only 20% in London.

It is clear that getting everyone online is becoming more critical than ever. And as societies turn towards more circular economies, recommerce, which is the process of reselling or repurposing second-hand goods, has become a driving force in bridging the digital divide.

With the option to wipe and refresh used computers and pass them on so that they can have a second life, both businesses and households can help those who are excluded from the digital world.

The digital divide internationally

One charity focusing on this issue is The Turing Trust, which was set up by James Turing to honour the legacy of his great uncle Alan Turing. It refurbishes donated IT equipment and sends it to schools, primarily, over the past decade, in Ghana and Malawi. 

“For most of the students we’re working with in Malawi, it will be their first time ever touching a computer with their own hands,” says Turing. “The fact that [the device] is a bit slow is irrelevant as long as it’s still functional and, most importantly, has a few years of life left in it.” 

When the pandemic hit, the charity started receiving requests from the UK. Over the past year, it has been providing computers for UK students, primarily during lockdown although its work is continuing. This was facilitated by the shift to working from home, which resulted in many companies owning desktop computers they no longer needed.

It still baffles me that many organisations seem to think the only way to destroy the data is to destroy the hard drive, or actually physically destroy the computer

This was the situation investment company Rathbones found itself in. “As we adapted to the remote working environment at the onset of the pandemic, we found we had a large number of desktop computers across our 15 offices that were surplus to requirements,” recalls Andy Brodie, chief operating officer. As a result, it donated just under 1,000 desktop computers, many of which were just a year old. 

“The whole process was very straightforward and The Turing Trust handled everything from collection of the equipment to distribution,” he adds.

The charity accepts donations of laptops, desktops, tablets and phones from both businesses and individuals. Computers that might be a bit old and slow for high-powered lawyers can still work reasonably well if they are given to a school or household instead but typically, the devices should be less than six years old. 

“That way we can be fairly sure we’re going to get at least three, if not five or more years of life out of it,” says Turing.

Once they receive the devices, the data is wiped by volunteers. And while some volunteers are purely there to help, others get involved because it provides an opportunity to gain hardware IT Skills. “Most people are a bit worried about breaking computers, if they’re trying to learn for the first time, which is not something we’re excessively concerned about,” says Turing. Discovering this motivation among their volunteers allowed the charity to set up training courses in conjunction with job centres for people in long-term unemployment to gain hardware IT skills. 

“The digital divide is a three-part problem,” notes Ross Cockburn, the founder of the charity Reusing IT. “It’s the device, it’s the connectivity and then it’s the education to use the kit.” He explains that donating a computer may not be very helpful if the parents of a child do not have the confidence to navigate it or if the family is cut off from the internet. 

When companies consider whether to donate their devices, a key question is who is going to take ownership of the removal of the data. “It still baffles me that many organisations seem to think the only way to destroy the data [on a device] is to destroy the hard drive or physically destroy the computer,” says Cockburn. 

Dealing with e-waste

The UK is currently the second-largest producer of e-waste in the world, with every person binning 23.9kg of gadgets and appliances a year on average, according to the Global E-Waste Monitor. In July, the UK introduced the ‘right to repair’ law to force manufacturers to make longer-lasting appliances but recommerce continues to play a major role in tackling e-waste.

The charity Reusing IT works with computer donors including the University of Aberdeen, the University of St Andrews and NHS Lothian. The charity receives about 1,500 computers from NHS Lothian a year, with hard drives removed by NHS teams beforehand. 

“We have a fantastic relationship with them,” says Cockburn. “It’s great for their internal morale,” as staff members appreciate that a computer that might be worthless and redundant for the NHS can be transformed into a new computer for a child in Africa to get an education.

Reflecting on recommerce, he says it’s no different to asking: why do we have food banks and yet we destroy so much food? “We just destroy too many computers for the wrong reasons.”