The manufacture of technological goods is a messy business. And their disposal is worse. In High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, Elizabeth Grossman describes the environmental impacts and health hazards of what is commonly referred to as “clean industry”.
Climate change is a source of much anxiety for me. Considering the degradation of the environment and the myriad effects such a breakdown has on humans and biodiversity is depressing. So, naturally, I chose to read a book that would fuel this neurotic fire and send me down a rabbit hole of despair. I thought I knew what I was getting into, but the reality is so much worse than I could have imagined.
I knew that high tech devices were tricky to dispose of — as anyone who’s tried to figure out how to recycle an old laptop is well aware — and I’ve seen enough documentaries to have some clue about the irresponsible and hazardous ways in which that recycling often takes place, but I’d never thought about the extraction and development of the raw materials that go into manufacturing and the manufacturing process itself. Grossman goes into much detail about the toxics and hazards present at every stage of a high tech good’s lifecycle; High Tech Trash is full of explanations about the properties of chemicals and minerals, production facts and figures, and detailed descriptions of processes. She uses this information to build her central argument, which is that the manufacture and disposal of high tech goods has been handled irresponsibly and something needs to be done about it. The question this argument implies is: whose responsibility is it? Should the burden of protecting the environment and people from toxic hazards fall on consumers, manufacturers, governments or some other organizational entity?
While Grossman has a point of view, she doesn’t proselytize and instead offers thorough explanations of the complexities of the issue and gives examples of regulatory successes and failures throughout the book. I’d like to begin a conversation on this issue. To get us started, I’ll summarize some information from High Tech Trash and then give my own opinion.
High tech goods are made from a variety of raw materials, including synthetic chemicals, many of which are toxic to some degree, and minerals, often mined in ways disruptive to the environment. It is not uncommon for toxic materials to get someplace they shouldn’t be during the manufacturing process; companies take precautions but tanks leak, water runoff isn’t treated well enough, gasses escape and as a result soil, groundwater, and air become polluted. “Many high-tech companies that have roots in Silicon Valley also have Superfund sites in their history” (Grossman 2006, 259). And it’s not only surrounding environments that are impacted. People who work at points along the manufacturing process have historically been exposed to toxics, both unknowingly and knowingly. While high tech electronics are in tact, the hazardous chemicals within (including solvents, photoresist compounds, heavy metals, chemicals used in semiconductor production, and flame retardants, just to name a few) are harmless, but if they are dismantled or destroyed (in the process of garbage collection or irresponsible recycling, for example) these materials have a chance to escape and the toxics become part of the surrounding environment. Research has shown that the impacts are immediate (an individual dismantling components by hand breaths in toxic particles) as well as persistent (cleanup from toxic accidents can take decades to complete as, for example, toxics spilled underground seep into groundwater and air) and bioaccumulative (consistent exposure to certain chemicals will result in a build-up of the toxic in an individual as well as in the food web). Further, the specific health and environmental impacts are difficult to pinpoint. The effects of hazardous materials are studied in isolation, but exposure is almost always to multiple chemicals.
There are many reasons why these health and environmental problems persist. One is that high tech manufacturing is a global process but there aren’t international regulations for each part of the process. Another is that there is no consensus about what level of each hazardous material should be considered, well, hazardous. A third is that, in the U.S. specifically, regulations on the manufacturing process have historically been reactionary and not precautionary. (The European Union and Japan have a history of precautionary regulations and currently regulate both the manufacture and disposal of electronics.) And in the middle of these and other complexities is the push and pull between consumers, manufacturers, and the government. So, what should be done? Who should be held responsible for the toxic effects of electronics manufacturing and waste?
Right now, in the United States, the burden of responsibility falls heavily on the consumer. It’s up to the individual to properly dispose of unwanted or broken electronics (which often takes a time-consuming search and can require a fee) and, in most states, it’s perfectly legal to just toss those items in with other household refuse. It’s also up to the individual to ensure that the company recycling those electronics is doing so responsibly and ethically, using facilities in the U.S. or foreign facilities held to those same standards of safety. Further, if a consumer wants to make a responsible purchase, he or she must conduct extensive research into a company’s supply chain. (High tech manufacturers release regular reports accounting for their use of resources and release of hazardous waste (Grossman 2006, 258). I tried to find some reports and was unsuccessful.) In my opinion, this type of process will never be good enough. Although positive individual decisions and actions can create positive change when regarded collectively, corporations and governments can affect the largest changes.
Manufacturers of electronic goods should be responsible for the reduction or elimination of health and environmental hazards at all points of the life cycle of an item. These companies, with guidance and regulation from the EPA, should be forced to “apply some of the ingenuity that has created the products of the Digital Age to making those products ecologically sound” (Grossman 2006, 264). Also, information about what goes into an electronic device should be readily available to consumers. Similar to the Kimberley Process for diamonds, Energy Star ratings for appliances, and even organic certifications on foods, consumers should be able to obtain summarized information about the health and environmental impact of high tech electronics.* Grossman mentions numerous accounts of manufacturers decrying such regulations, claiming that their products will become inferior, more expensive, or both if they have to consider alternative raw materials and take responsibility for what happens to an item when it becomes obsolete. I think it is shortsighted for manufacturers to claim that regulations harm their businesses. Innovation is the name of the high tech game, why should that apply only to the size of electronics and the speed at which consumers can access entertainment? And if regulations were applied nationally (or, even better, internationally) no company would be at a greater disadvantage than any other — if prices did increase, the increase would be across brands.
In addition, consumers should be able to easily recycle electronics they no longer use and this process should be guaranteed to be safe. At present, regulation and availability of electronic recycling depends on state legislation and/or voluntary action by manufacturers. Governments should work in concert with manufacturers to coordinate local recycling efforts that are easy for consumers.
Are environmental and health regulations out of line with the spirit of technological innovation? If electronics manufacturers have to be mindful of the materials they use and the eventual disposal of the devices they create, will progress be slowed? Even if manufacturers become instantly compliant with the most rigorous standards and governments make recycling laptops as easy as recycling a soda can, will consumers care or will they continue to dispose of old items carelessly? If you’re from or have lived in a country with electronic recycling and production standards that exceed those in the U.S., do you think those regulations have been successful? Is there a solution to the growing problem of high tech trash?
*Update: I actually saw a little motor stamped with an “RoHS” sticker yesterday! RoHS stands for the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive, a directive that took effect in the European Union in 2006 and restricts the use of a few hazardous materials in the production of electronic devices. Has anyone else noticed these or other labels?