eReuse – Increasing social equity, decreasing e-waste

This article was originally posted by the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UNSW here

Fourth year environmental engineering student Charlotte Wang has been volunteering her time and skills to assist others since high school. As a high achieving student (including a Duke of Edinburgh award) at Sydney Girls’ High School, Charlotte spent many outside school hours at Sydney Multicultural Community Services in Daceyville mentoring primary school children in Maths and English and running a support group.

Not surprisingly perhaps, as the daughter of two engineers (one geospatial, the other IT & software) Charlotte was good at mathematics from the start. But she was less interested in science. Nor was she interested in that traditional indicator of a budding engineer – Lego. ‘I preferred to read, rather than playing Lego,’ she says, ‘but I still wanted to know how things work!’

At high school she studied and excelled in history and legal studies. Her question as a child had always been a pretty big one. ‘Why is there injustice and what can we do about it?’ When it came to choosing a university course, Charlotte chose not to follow her social justice interest into the humanities or law, but into so-called ‘apolitical’ engineering.

‘Engineering has a direct impact on our lives, and engineers need to know how to design for people and to understand the impact of development on communities. I wanted in the end to study something not just to analyse or understand ideas, but to have the tools to create and change things. ‘

She didn’t wait for graduation to make her impact!

Charlotte Wang and Rohan Pala - CVEN student- led project innovators

At UNSW Charlotte joined the local branch of ENACTUS – a social entrepreneurial group of students, academics and industry around the world. There she met a group of like -minded students and the idea of eReuse was born.

As Charlotte notes, computers are a highly useful tool, responsible for many advancements in our modern times, but also highly manufactured, toxic to our environment and difficult to recycle.

The students discovered that only 10% of the 4 million computers sold each year end up being recycled in Australia. The rest will become e-waste, the world’s fastest growing waste stream- discarded as landfill or exported to other countries, potentially causing severe environmental and public health damage in developing nations.

At the same time, they learnt that almost 20% of Australians do not have access to a computer at home, and it is most likely those with lower incomes.

The aim of eReuse Inc. was to save UNSW computers from landfill –to refurbish and then recycle them for those people who lack access to computers– which have become almost a pre-requisite for full participatory citizenship in the contemporary world.

The School of Civil and Environmental Engineering was the first UNSW group to sign up for e-Reuse. Moreover, valuable funding and support for the development process was provided throughout 2016 by the Head of School Professor Stephen Foster and the School’s Teaching and Learning Committee.

Rohan Pala, a civil engineering/commerce student, was looking for a way to engage more fully at university when he met Charlotte at a student expo stall and was encouraged by her to join the eReuse team. It wasn’t long before he found himself also sharing the vision.

It was Rohan who steered the group through into incorporated status, and registered as not-for-profit organisation. The road was lengthy and complex – the day the email came through confirming that they were now officially not-for-profit was a memorable one. ‘It was good’ Rohan said’ to feel that we had got through some previously uncharted territory – and were able now to reach further afield.’

In September 2016 an agreement to recycle and re-use UNSW IT equipment was signed between UNSW and ARC, UNSW’s student union with the pilot program, developed by eReuse Inc., to be trialed as a UNSW program and implemented at a UNSW-wide level.

How it Works:

A weekly computer refurbishment workshop is held every Wednesday night at the UNSW Michael Crouch Innovation Centre, allowing students to gain hands on experience with computer hardware.

Orders for these computers are placed by caseworkers and social workers from Sydney’s social service organisations, including Mission Australia, St Vincent de Paul, Core Community Services and Multicultural Communities – all organisations seeking to cultivate social justice, on principles of inclusion, participation, access and equity.

Computers that are not able to be refurbished are placed in a serviced e-waste recycling bin located in the Michael Crouch Innovation Centre. Participating organisations also ensure that the computers provided to them are recycled at the end of their life.

The successful development and launch of the e-Reuse project could well form a model for ongoing student-led courses and social enterprise projects at UNSW -which can also be applied to other universities and organisations.

It is an example of environmental engineering that involves social and technological solutions to deliver on all three pillars of sustainability: economic, social and environmental.

 

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