How surplus PCs can narrow digital divide, promote sustainable IT

How surplus PCs can narrow digital divide, promote sustainable IT

This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that nearly 60 percent of low-income American homes -- not 60 million American homes -- need a PC. GreenBiz regrets the error.

The scope of America’s digital divide became more starkly apparent to me recently after watching the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars. It was a stunning technological achievement.

But about 48 hours later I was listening to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski outline the scope of our technology gap in this country -- an enormous disparity in digital access, training and skills that limits the horizons of millions of low-income Americans.

We can put a rover on Mars, yet 100 million citizens are without broadband access and 66 million Americans lack basic digital literacy skills. Nearly 60 percent of low-income American homes need a PC -- technology that for most of us is as fundamental to day-to-day life as a phone or refrigerator.

Chairman Genachowski made his remarks while helping Redemtech launch PC Pledge 100, a nationwide computer donation campaign aimed at American corporations, which will provide thousands of school age children with home PCs and laptops at a price within their families’ financial means.

PC Pledge 100 supports Connect2Compete (C2C), a public-private initiative launched by Chairman Genachowski late last year to narrow the digital divide through free digital literacy training, discounted high-speed Internet and affordable computers for low-income Americans. Through PC Pledge 100, businesses and other organizations can donate 100 or more qualifying computers to provide much-needed technology for low-income Americans who participate in C2C.

Why does this matter to big companies? The initiatives illustrate how businesses can convert low-value surplus IT into a strategic asset that delivers real value on the triple bottom line of social, environmental and financial results.

While the statistics on the digital divide can seem overwhelming, there are actually enough surplus computers in corporate America to provide a PC for every family eligible for C2C. According to Gartner, the leading IT consultancy to business leaders around the world, every year more than 17 million computers with plenty of useful life left are prematurely retired from U.S. businesses. It is not uncommon for PCs to be replaced in businesses where the user is still satisfied with the computer.

PC Pledge 100 is designed to connect this fallow supply with nearly seven million families in the U.S. to be eligible for C2C. Computers thatare outdated by corporate standards may be perfect for low-income families or non-profit organizations that just need basic functionality like word processing, email and Web browsing.

Unfortunately, only 3 percent of the computers decommissioned by U.S. businesses are donated, despite the fact that 75 percent are four years old or less, according to Gartner. That low figure may be inflated if you consider that many computers are “gifted” to charities or individuals without proper testing, repairs and licensed software.

Recipients often don’t have the money or know-how to repair their gifts, the equipment goes unused, and does not achieve its goal of helping the person or nonprofit. These well-intended donations of as-is computers are becoming more and more rare due to concerns about data security, consumer privacy, and environmental regulations imposed on businesses today.

These legitimate objections can be readily addressed through a rigorous, well-managed donation process. Gartner recently noted that it has typically advised caution for companies interested in donating, but has changed its position if the donation process addresses the traditional concerns by securely removing confidential data and adding current, fully licensed software.

Triple Bottom Line Results

Finding ways to extend the useful life of surplus IT equipment is essential to boosting sustainability. Surplus IT equipment sent to “recycling” typically ends up in massive e-waste dumps that endanger impoverished countries in Africa and Asia.

In addition, finding ways to reuse PCs saves energy and cuts greenhouse gas emissions related to manufacturing new computers. Each new PC requires 1.8 tons of raw materials — about the same as a mid-size automobile — and consumes 81 percent of the energy a computer uses throughout its lifecycle, according to a United Nations University study. Donating 100 computers saves enough energy to power 68 houses for a year, and reduces greenhouse gases equivalent to removing 48 cars from the road for a year.

Families purchasing a refurbished C2C computer can return them at no charge at the end of their useful life for safe and e-Stewards® Certified recycling. For donating organizations, this removes their environmental liability for the equipment.

Donating surplus IT also is favorable from a financial and CSR perspective. When corporations fund the refurbishment of donated PCs, they can realize a Giving ROI of $5 - $7 for every dollar invested.

C2C is ramping up this month, reaching out to about a half million students from low-income families.  In early 2013, the program rolls out to a total of seven million families. That’s a lot of curious young minds. Through PC Pledge 100 and C2C, corporate surplus equipment can help low-income families prepare their children to innovate our next generation’s Curiosity. 

Photo of old laptops copyright by Ari N via Shutterstock