Almost two million working Pentium 3s and Pentium 4s are being trashed every year in the UK. Computer reuse and recycling are very low in Britain which is criminal when there are students in Africa who have never been able to use a computer. However, help is at hand from a charity, a very special one.

Justin Richards caught up with Tony Roberts, Chief Executive of Computer Aid International, to find out more about the whole computer reuse issue.

Students at Kilgorsi SchoolComputer Aid International are a not for profit organization that obtain used computers from companies and individuals here within the UK, refurbishes them and sends them out to mainly African countries to be used in education centres and in other worthwhile projects.

'Until now we've shipped over 75,000 computers to 106 different countries. 75 per cent of the computers we ship go to Africa. About 65 percent go to educational institutions of one form or another and the rest go to a whole range of other registered not for profit organisations, which could be hospitals or local government or could be water projects'.

'In the UK our job is to talk to businesses and other institutions about why they might want to think about donating their old computers to us and then we have a large facility in North London where we collect, test, clean, professionally refurbish and upgrade those machines before passing them on to recipient organisations. It costs us about £39, plus shipping, to process each PC so then we have to look for funding to cover those costs in order to remain operational'.

Which projects over the years have given you the most personal satisfaction?

It's a difficult question to answer. In Kenya we work with a local charity called Computers for Schools Kenya, which basically does what it says on the tin. We have sent them almost 3,000 computers and we get a lot of satisfaction working with them because they provide professional training to both teachers and technicians. They go to check that each school room is physically secure and electrified to health and safety standards; all that has to happen before they are allowed to take the computers. When they've got the computers they provide them with technical support and ongoing training for the teachers. So that's a very big, very integrated project where you are guaranteed the outcomes are going to be sustainable.

Hence, that's one kind of project that we are quite proud of. But there are also some very small ones that don't enjoy the level of resourcing that CFSK do in Kenya, but which may be addressing HIV and AIDS so they'll be using computers to disseminate information about using condoms and safe sex and also using them for documenting the drug regimens to make sure patients are taking them as prescribed. So that could be a very small project with just two or three computers in one room but dealing with some really problematic issues and we wish we could work with them on a much bigger scale. Hence, sometimes it’s the issue that's rewarding and sometimes it's the scale.

Do you target individuals as well as organizations, and what advice do you have for people, especially students, with regard to actually disposing of their old PCs?

We do target individuals. We get hundreds of donations from individuals as well as from organisations and corporates. will collect a donated PC from anywhere in the UK and deliver it to Computer Aid for £9.75. We are particularly interested in talking to students and staff in educational establishments within the UK for the following reasons:

We're shipping most of the computers to schools and colleges overseas. In Africa more than 95 per cent of graduates have never seen or used a computer in their classrooms. They are entering the world of work looking for white-collar employment without basic IT literacy. And this is a basic requirement for professional jobs in Kenya exactly as it is here. There really is no difference. What that means to people in Kenya is that out of their own pockets they have to go and pay for IT training in private colleges in the evenings or at weekends. And that means that only the relatively privileged who can afford to pay to gain access to those skills can benefit. Whereas in the UK basic IT literacy it's just a given. In every UK school there are computers, and every student learns at least basic IT skills.

When it comes to university in Africa it's not at all uncommon for a university that has say 15,000 students enrolled to only have two or three open access labs meaning that 15,000 students have to queue up for maybe 40 PCs. So you have people qualifying as accountants, as journalists, as IT professionals, as lawyers who still have entirely inadequate IT literacy and so are not prepared for the world of work.

This has enormous implications for countries' efforts to end poverty. If you are setting out the national plan for economic development of any country in the context of globalisation, where increasingly the economy is dependant on trade that is conducted electronically using information technology, if you haven't given your work force those skills, if your institutions do not have the technology in place, then you can’t compete effectively with other international economies; it’s simply impossible. These are core competencies of any modern economy. They are not an optional luxury. They are an absolutely essential element of international competitiveness and therefore defeating poverty is not possible in their absence.

In the UK student members take these skills for granted. However, students in the countries that we send the computers to face the same problems as our students but are denied the opportunity to develop their skills properly. We think that UK students and academics will understand intuitively that it's important for us to get the unwanted computers from their institutions across to developing countries.

How do you see the production of PCs and their component parts developing in future? Do you think that materials used will change dramatically and if so in what time frame?

I don't know if I’m competent to answer that. What I can say is that in relation to the environmental issues I think there has been significant progress. In terms of the environment the issues really are the three 'R's; to reduce, to reuse and to recycle. In this context this means to reduce the use of environmentally damaging components, including gases and chemicals in the production and manufacture of the equipment, and I think there has been progress made in those areas.

We’ve seen the move away from the old style cathode ray tube monitors to the flat thin–film transistor (TFT) monitors. That's a significant advance in environmental terms because the monitors are the most difficult things to recycle in a way that will not damage the people involved in the process and doesn't leach poisons into the ground. There are other examples where the manufactures are designing out problematic elements of the process and really that's down to pressure from some of the more advanced European countries like Scandinavia and Germany. You cannot export to those countries products that cannot be recycled and so some of the elements that are used in the wiring have been designed out of the process so that the manufacturers can compete in those markets. So we've seen some gains.

Where Computer Aid comes in is with the second 'R', which is in the reuse. I think because of the lack of awareness around this issue sometimes companies are tempted to move directly from their decommissioning of their corporate desktop to recycling and that's a mistake in our opinion: a mistake that is damaging to the environment. It's also a waste because those machines have at least another three or four year’s productive life left in them. Plus it's damaging for the environment, because if we are going to take all of these elements out of the ecology then we need to make productive use of them and use them until the end of their natural life.

There's been research done at the UN University in Tokyo to empirically prove that it's better for the environment if everything is used and then reused before moving to the final stage of recycling. Recycling should only take place when no further productive use can be made of a computer. And that's where Computer Aid comes in, where we take, clean and refurbish a donated PC, on average that's going to last another three or four years. That means you can get another 6,000 hours of productive life from every single PC.

Put it in human terms, 6,000 hours is enough to provide 50 children each with 120 hours worth of computer literacy training – enough class time to provide them with a very good level of IT literacy. That will put them in a position to get well-paid jobs in white-collar employment anywhere in Africa. So that one PC can transform the lives of 50 different people. And that's why we say don't just recycle, give it to us first, let us put it to productive reuse and only then after another three to four years of reuse do we get to the third 'R', to recycle it, when it really is dead, and has outlived its productive life.

Do you think the UK Government is doing enough to encourage reuse and recycling?

No! The Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment Directive (WEEE), from the European Union has been implemented for two or three years in some of the more advanced European countries. The UK has failed to implement by the EC deadline for implementation. The deadline has come and gone and we're going into yet another round of consultations so there's no chance of that legislation being implemented until at least the middle of next year now. And so the UK is falling further and further behind. It's a great shame – we're talking about millions of computers going to waste. The numbers for this year, according to Gartner, were 6.5 million desktop PCs sold in the UK. That sort of volume of PCs is being bought every year and a corresponding number is being decommissioned every year and yet there is nowhere in the UK where you can get cost-efficient state-of-the-art recycling of waste electronic and electrical equipment.

Naturally some of the kit donated to Computer Aid fails our testing process and because Computer Aid is not prepared to compromise on the environment we go to the extent of shipping all the waste from our process to Belgium or Germany, because of the state-of-the-art waste facilities there. There the governments have implemented legislation and built excellent recycling facilities. Only there can we be certain that zero percent of the equipment that we can’t reuse will end up in landfill. It's not possible to get that level of service, in an economical way, in the UK, which is a terrible shame. It's a bit ironic, that when you are driven by environmental concerns, you have to drive a truck full of electrical equipment from the UK to Belgium to make sure that it's disposed of in a way that it doesn't pollute the environment!

What in your opinion are the most important developments in IT within the last five years?

For Computer Aid the move from the cathode ray tube monitors to the flat screen TFTs is very significant for us. The recycling of all the rest of the PC on the ground in Africa, at the very end of its real life, is relatively straightforward. Just as in the UK you can make money by recycling everything except the monitors, people will pay for the circuit boards and the metals, that's not problematic. The thing that is the problem in Africa and in the UK is the cathode ray tube, because to decommission that in a way that doesn't damage the work force, and which doesn’t damage the environment, cannot be a profit-making venture – it is necessarily a loss-making business.

The only way this will change is when government legislation says it's illegal to throw this into landfill, and where the government puts into place a financial mechanism that makes it possible to run it as a sustainable business. Only then will it be possible to cost-effectively recycle cathode ray tubes, whether in a computer monitor or in a regular TV set; and just as we haven't reached that point in the UK by 2006 that hasn't happened in Africa yet either.

The fact that at the moment all computers in the UK market are being manufactured using TFTs helps to address this problem. Even now in our market place, where we're talking about the refurbishment of second hand PCs, there's only maybe a maximum of two years supply of cathode ray tube CRT monitors left. So that problem will also disappear for recipient countries in Africa, within two years or so. So that's a very significant advance and not just because people prefer flat screen monitors and like to save space, but because of the environmental considerations wherever they reach their real end-of-life.

The other surprising thing for us, as an ICT-enabled organisation is how, within the last five years, most organisations who do business with us, apply via the internet, and have never been to the UK, and never even met with us. Our engagement with them, our verification of their status, all our documentation exchange, is done electronically in the majority of cases. We couldn't run our organisation if that technological infrastructure wasn't spreading outside of Europe and North America to the developing world. You would be amazed at the number of internet cafes in even small towns in Africa.