Interview: Askar Sheibani, CEO of Comtek - People need to change their ways on e-waste

Askar Sheibani, CEO of IT repairs firm Comtek, talks to Computer Weekly about fighting e-waste, the benefits of reuse to the UK economy, and how big manufacturers are fuelling an unsustainable future

Askar Sheibani, CEO of IT repairs firm Comtek, talks to Computer Weekly about fighting e-waste, the benefits of reuse to the UK economy, and how big manufacturers are fuelling an unsustainable future

As a society, our appetite for the latest technology means "cutting-edge" equipment can soon find itself on the scrap heap, with little regard for the environmental consequences. Askar Sheibani, CEO of infrastructure repair company Comtek, is determined to change this attitude.

Sheibani has been campaigning to reduce e-waste for many years, recently bringing together MPs and experts in Westminster in an event to raise awareness of this escalating problem - according to a UN report, world e-waste growth is about 40 million metric tonnes a year. Not surprisingly, Sheibani believes reuse of electrical equipment should be the first weapon in fighting the growing mountains of e-waste.

>> See our special report: Action against e-waste <<

"This is the simplest common-sense way of reducing e-waste. The majority of electrical equipment is manufactured abroad so it would be good for growth in Britain, because it would generate more skilled jobs in repairing equipment, creating a knowledge-based economy that has been eroded. And it would save the public money as they stop replacing so much equipment," he says.

Sheibani wants to educate the public about e-waste and hold politicians to account for not doing more. "One of the main problems is we are consuming a lot more than needed," he says. "There's an enormous amount of carbon involved in the production cycle of manufacturing. Excessive manufacturing can only be tackled by reducing consumption."

One way would be for public sector bodies to increase the life-cycle of their electrical products, such as laptops, by three years. This is easily achievable by using repairs, says Sheibani. But politicians also need to do more to enforce Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment regulations.

"We should not be exporting waste to developing countries, many of which don't always have the skills to know if it is second-hand material or just e-waste. But the problem is this is not an area that is a vote winner, so they don't bother to do anything about it," he says.

Changing public opinion

Public perception remains an issue in combating the problem. "The areas of interest [in environmental campaigns] are things like wind turbine technology or solar panels; e-waste is just not seen as sexy," says Sheibani.

Some 80% of high-tech products deemed to be e-waste could be reused, says Sheibani. A case in point was when communications company Nortel went into administration in 2009 and was going to throw away all its electrical equipment before Comtek stepped in to buy 700 tonnes of its telecoms products. "It all would have been wasted if we hadn't bought it. So far we've sold about 10% and are using a lot of the equipment to train our engineers."

Old equipment is often perfectly fit for purpose, says Sheibani. "London Underground and Eurotunnel use some of our products, which are more than 20 years old and functioning very well."

Resistance in the boardroom

The other major obstacle for change is big electronics manufacturing companies. "They are completely removed from society in boardrooms and can only think about profits and shareholders. The focus is to manufacture as cheaply as possible and sell as cheap as possible. Sustainability is not at the top of their agenda," he claims.

Many large manufacturers will not allow anyone else to reuse their products, pressuring companies that do so by refusing to provide necessary support, according to Sheibani. Software is also sometimes embedded into hardware products to prevent reuse, he adds.

"This is a deliberate barrier to stop the reuse market, because the customer doesn't want to get involved in a battle with the manufacturer about relicensing. Auto manufacturers don't do that; they will always provide support for second-hand cars."

Recession encourages reuse

However, attitudes to reuse are shifting, as larger corporate users have seen the benefit of reuse and repairs as the economic downturn continues to bite.

"These are companies that the large manufacturers wouldn't dare to bully. The recession has been a window of opportunity to encourage sustainability to reduce e-waste," says Sheibani

So what's next? "We want to take this on to the European Parliament. We want to challenge it to come up with policies that will change the culture, such as decreasing VAT or giving companies carbon credits," he says.

Sheibani is certain that public attitudes to e-waste will change with time. "I compare it to asking for tap water in restaurants instead of buying bottled. That used to be something that people looked down upon, but has become acceptable as they now realise the environmental benefits," he says.

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