Q&A: E-waste and business growth in the UK

Askar Sheibani, CEO of telecoms repair and support company, The Comtek Group, discusses how businesses can tackle e-waste in a world of 'rip-and-replace'.

Is business growth in the UK being hampered by wasted technology?

In modern society it has become customary to rip-and-replace technology rather than repairing and re-using. In a business environment this is draining company finances and will undoubtedly have a knock on effect on growth. What’s more, throwing equipment into landfill sites eliminates the chance for other companies to make use of the technology which may be comparatively cheaper to buying ‘new’.

It’s also hugely important that vendors in the UK technology industry have access to equipment stores as a source of spares should critical elements on a network fail and need replacing, to avoid having to tear out an entire IT infrastructure. Finally, with Gartner predicting that global IT spend is to drop by 0.5 per cent, belts need to be tightened and repairing rather than replacing equipment can become low hanging fruit for many organisations.

How can surplus technology be put to good use?

As a first point of call, businesses need to keep track of what equipment they have installed and where it is being used. This eliminates idle, legacy technology that could be draining network capacity or putting the network at risk of downtime. Once the surplus technology has been noted, it’s then a case of figuring out which parts are useful and where they can add value. For some businesses, this may be a case of determining what departments are procuring that sort of technology – for example hardware such as a router or a phone – for others, it may be that the equipment needs to be deinstalled.

An enterprise utilising an asset recovery service can not only make money out of deinstalled equipment, as repair vendors like us need a store of spares, but by not throwing the technology away, the company becomes more ethically responsible and is contributing to a more circular economy. There are hundreds of other companies looking for this exact bit of equipment – not least because often the original manufacturers have stopped producing spares – it’s simply a case of connecting the dots between them and where there is surplus.

What if the equipment is no longer fit for purpose or is likely to break – doesn’t this put business continuity at risk?

If equipment is no longer fit for purpose, it should be handed over to a specialist that can either make use of some part of the product or repair it to put it back in operation. At Comtek, we often see repaired telecoms equipment remain in operation four times longer than the original manufacturer’s prediction, demonstrating just how robust telecoms equipment can be, if handled correctly.

If anything, utilising a repair vendor and / or support service aside from the original manufacturer, gives you access to expertise across a broad range of manufacturers and technologies. This is actually much more likely to enhance business continuity – as the life span of all equipment is potentially expanded – rather than impede it.

Does technology ever really reach the true end of its lifecycle in our modern day and age?

Sadly, in most cases, it doesn’t. Our experience in repairing and recycling IT equipment shows that very few businesses actually utilise technology until it’s reached true ‘end of life’. What’s more, in our eyes, ‘end of life’ doesn’t mean the first time equipment requires a repair, it means when it can no longer be repaired. This is an important distinction to understand.

A common misconception is that if a vendor stops production or support of a certain piece of equipment that it has reached its ‘end of life’ when it requires a repair. This is simply not the case. There are thousands of telecoms infrastructures in place with Nortel and Sorrento Networks equipment, for example, but repair and support contracts are available and there is no need to consider tearing down entire network infrastructures due to one fault caused by an ‘irreplaceable’ part. The solution to this is partnerships with companies who have the expertise to understand and rebuild the technology from scratch, as this opens up a whole realm of repair and re-use opportunities – all of which can save businesses money.

What’s the impact of manufacturers continually pushing upgrades?

In an age where we’re already on the sixth generation of iPhones, we’re familiar with multiple versions of the same product. This inevitably pushes consumers and companies alike to get into a routine of upgrading. It leads to a culture of obsolescence and results in a growing amount of unnecessary e-waste. Not only will more technology end up in landfill sites creating pollution, but the value the equipment had remaining is lost forever.

As well as manufacturers encouraging businesses to buy ‘new,’ tons of old products are left wasted in its warehouses. Companies are irresponsibly producing a lot more than is required and, with the current rate of innovation, it often results in stacks of equipment that is out-of-date before it even leaves the manufacturer. A prime example of this is set top boxes that never get shipped, let alone installed. Companies which continue to rip-and-replace their network infrastructure are only perpetrating this pandemic of overproduction.

Is a new product every really ‘greener’?

The move towards more environmentally sustainable business practices too often involves replacing legacy ICT equipment with models that purport to help organisations lower their carbon emissions. Manufacturers continually promote the replacement of legacy equipment with ‘greener’ models, but these new products are often produced via extremely energy-intensive manufacturing processes – which negate any green benefits gained from either using or recycling the product. By repairing, rather than replacing equipment, businesses can act as a catalyst in reducing the demand for new products, which in turn helps to reduce the use of fossil fuels and raw materials used in the manufacturing process – something that can never be achieved with new products.

Are we likely to run out of resources in the technology industry?

There is a huge risk that the amount of rare earth metals available will become so scarce that technology costs will sky rocket. Rare earth metals are the crucial ingredient in many of our tech products. From everyday smartphones, tablets and laptops, to the niche technology used by the military and medical profession, all depend on rare earth metals to function, for features as broad as a phone’s coloured screen to the magnets used to power hybrid cars. As new technology continues to flood the market, the demand for these metals will grow, but they’re already in short supply.

If we’re going to ensure that there are enough rare earth metals to keep pace with the current rate of technological innovation, and if we’re going to stop them filling landfill sites, we need to end today’s rip-and-replace attitude towards IT equipment, as well as an end to the overproduction of devices by manufacturers.

Should businesses take more responsibility for the damage e-waste causes?

It is absolutely paramount that businesses take responsibility for e-waste. In the UK, it is causing pollution and creating an unnecessary drain on business finances. The situation worsens when you consider how much e-waste is shipped off to developing countries. Often being illegally dumped – rather than re-used as intended – the e-waste mounts and becomes a dangerous hazard for those living nearby.

There comes a point where businesses have to work with governments to reduce the level of e-waste, particularly when it could benefit businesses, UK citizens as well as the wider economy and society. It’s time for a new approach to technology procurement and at Comtek we’re committed ensuring repair and re-use is at the very heart of this.

Askar Sheibani, CEO, The Comtek Group

Image Credit: Igor Zh / Shutterstock