High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health
by Elizabeth Grossman
Island Press 2006
Consider the last time you upgraded to a new computer, cell phone, television or DVD player. Now think of all the technological equipment you’ve discarded over the past decade. While most of us would be hard pressed to recount the details, the massive accumulation of high-tech trash in the United States and across the globe is an escalating problem, out-pacing current strategies for disposal and posing serious threats to our health and the environment. Where does all that “e-waste” go once we turn to the next hot gadget, and what are the long-term consequences given that the number of computer users alone is expected to rise to 1 billion in 2007? These are some of the questions posed by author Elizabeth Grossman in her trenchant new book, “High Tech Trash.”
The image of the information age is lean and clean, Grossman says. The invisible lines and instant global connectivity of cyberspace lull us into imagining that electronics is a pristine industry far removed from the smokestacks and slag heaps of the Industrial Revolution. But the reality is very different, as both the production and disposal of electronics leaves a huge environmental footprint. A typical piece of equipment is composed of an intricate web of plastics, complex chemical compounds and several metals, including highly toxic material such as lead and mercury. Though safe when contained, if such materials are disposed of improperly, toxins can leach into the soil and groundwater and particulates can enter the atmosphere. Yet as of 2005, 90 percent of U.S. discards were degrading in landfills or being carted off to municipal incinerators. Of the equipment sent for recycling, an alarming amount enters illegal overseas markets where circuit boards are dismantled by hand and open fire pits expose local communities to high levels of cadmium, copper and zinc.
Grossman begins her study by investigating the economic, environmental and health costs of high-tech production, then discusses past and present problems with semi-conductor and circuit board manufacturing. An entire chapter is devoted to flame retardants, particularly polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a set of synthetic compounds that are mysteriously escaping their products to show up in waterways, the food supply and human blood streams—with ominous health implications. Grossman also exposes e-waste exportation to underdeveloped countries and the quiet practice of employing U.S. prisoners to dismantle electronics, often under questionable work conditions. Obsolete equipment contains valuable material, she notes, and recycling provides an economical and environmentally sound alternative to initial production. But the recovery of materials must take place under safe circumstances.
Indeed, we learn that many industrialized nations are moving decisively to take action. Japan sponsors e-waste recycling bins in every post office and involves manufacturers like Apple Computer in the shipping costs of returned equipment. Over the past year, the European Union has legislated two sweeping directives, the 2006 Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS), which bans or limits certain toxic matter, and the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), which in 2007 will mandate manufacturer recycling. Both RoHS and WEEE will have global impact upon future electronics manufacturing, Grossman believes. By contrast, the U.S. government’s reluctance to set national standards has forced individual states to pass their own legislation on toxic restrictions and disposal. Yet even in the past months, demands for greater federal leadership have increased as studies reveal the enormous cost—and confusion—of such individual measures.
The issues associated with e-waste are complex but not insurmountable, Grossman says. But she contends that long-term solutions will require the collaboration of governments, manufacturers and a willing public. “High Tech Trash” makes for dense but valuable reading, exposing what the Wall Street Journal recently termed “the world’s fastest-growing and potentially most dangerous waste problem.” And if Americans are to start seeking concrete solutions to the complex maze of e-waste, it will surely be engineers who will lead the way with policy, design and implementation strategies.
Robin Tatu is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.