Friday, 7 November 2014

The science behind recycling: Refurbishing Computers: Part 1

DESCO's office at Kempton Part
In Kempton Park, Johannesburg, amidst vast tracts of unattended land, stands the largest e-waste recycler of South Africa, DESCO.

A first time visitor here can easily confuse the place with that of a secret laboratory where scientific experiments are carried out. Anyone without a prior appointment is not allowed inside the huge iron gates. A camera at the gate takes a photograph of the vehicle you are riding in and then a machine scans your fingerprints.

Once inside the compound, the visitors are told to declare any electronic items that they might be carrying like smart phones, tablets, personal computers, cameras etc. Thereafter they go through a machine which detects if the visitor has any undeclared electronic items in their possession and finally they are allowed inside a huge steel gate.

Once inside, they are given safety glasses, earplugs and orange colored safety vests.

Says John van Coller, the corporate sales executive of the company: "one of the main purposes of our company is to educate and inform people about e –waste recycling."

Beginning its journey in 1992, the company has gone on to become the largest e-waste recycler not only in South Africa, but in the entire African continent.

Mother Boards are segmented in three divisions
Says Coller: “We have clients ranging from provincial governments to SANDF to corporate houses such as HP, Dell, IBM  and even universities such as Wits, UJ, UP etc.”

The first stop is the computer-refurbishing centre. Here all types of computers and accessories, those which have reached end of their normal life cycles are repaired and refurbished. Refurbishing differs from recycling as the device does not need to be broken down into parts. The part or accessory which seem to have stopped working are fixed and the computer is then donated to schools around Johannesburg.

A computer has the capacity to be repaired at least thrice before it finally gives away and a refurbished computer can work for as long as 6 years before breaking down. Giving away refurbished computers to schools and technical colleges also form part of DESCO’s ‘community outreach programme.’ Representatives from the company regularly go to schools around Gauteng to enlighten students and teachers about e-waste and the need to recycle them.

Below is a video of the refurbishing computer centre of DESCO.

The centre boasts of having a cutting edge software which can delete all and any information that is stored on the hardrive of the computer. According to Malcolm Whitehouse, manager of the refurbishing unit, DESCO receives a lot of computer equipments from SANDF and other corporate houses. Often there is sensitive information stored on the machines. DESCO does not release any computers without first rewriting the entire hardrive.

For computer units which cannot be repaired any longer, the mother board, the screen and the central processing unit (CPU) are taken apart for recycling. The rest of the computer consisting of plastic, glass or other material goes to recyclers who specialize in recycling those items.

The mother boards and processors are also segmented into three different categories: the low, medium and high. The highest grade is the most valued one as there is a large amount of gold, copper, aluminum that can be extracted from them. Most high grade mother boards are sent to foreign countries such as Switzerland, Finland and Norway. These countries have the mechanism and the know-how to extract optimum amount of metals from the equipments.

Circuit boards waiting for metal extraction
Only a third of the monitors and CPUs which come to DESCO are recycled by the company themselves. This is because the technology at DESCO is not sufficient to extract metals from a large number of processors and circuit boards. 

Computer refurbishing is a major recycling component of the Company. 

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