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High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health by Elizabeth Grossman

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?


11 comments to High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health by Elizabeth Grossman

  • I have seen the RoHS sticker, but had no idea of what it stood for! Now I have, thanks to your reading assignment!

    It seams that at every step of the way of “progress”, the human kind has been very careless. At first, I feel that consumers were always some kind of mislead as much as they could be at previous periods in history.

    Our Era seams to be the first time that we can inform ourselves and pass the information on via web, actions, blogs, etc.

    What comes to my mind when thinking about the questions you raised is: what is progress after all? Until now it has been a process that excludes many and destroys much. How do we progress towards something that leads to common good? How do we make the process less agressive towards nature and economy itself?

    Thank you for setting this discussion on!

  • Nancy

    First of all.. great sentence: ” So, naturally, I chose to read a book that would fuel this neurotic fire and send me down a rabbit hole of despair.” Might as well have humor as we look into the swirling vortex of doom.

    Do you think one difference now is that we actually have a global view? People were careless when it didn’t seem to matter. Even in my lifetime, Europeans have been much more concerned with waste and energy saving than Americans on a personal level. They didn’t have as much room, gas,e tc were more expensive.
    The real question, which Mary Fe points to, is how your generation will define progress.

  • nd876

    In New Jersey, you may bring electronics to your local recycling and pay a fee of about $15 per computer for recycling. I did this two years ago, grabbing $30 from the ATM to get rid of a few machines I had lying around. $30!!! When purchasing a computer, I definitely wasn’t factoring the cost of recycling into the equation. I paid it but it feels counterintuitive to pay money to get rid of something.

    After this experience I found out about a few other recycling options:

    Dell works with Goodwill to help recycle computers for FREE, you just need to drop off any computer at a Goodwill location. The guy at Goodwill said they would take any electronics, regardless of how old, and it doesn’t have to work.

    Also, Apple has a few partners for recycling- one of which will actually send you an apple gift card if they determine the device still has monetary value, or you can just send for a free shipping label for non-working electronics.

    You brought up a good point- After seeking out these “recyclers” I never thought to check into their practices- If I drop off a laptop at Apple or Dell, I felt “ok, great, It’s in their hands now.” But how do I know THEY are doing a respectable job recycling?

    I think that corporations should care, but government should ensure that there are adequate and reliable ways to recycle. Having a rating system would let consumers know what happens after they drop their equipment off.

    Most importantly, government should create awareness. I believe there are many people out there like me 2 years ago- that had an old machine and simply had no clue what to do with it. Progress, for me, would be that every citizen is aware that electronics need to be recycled properly and be able to know immediately how to do so in their location. :o)

    I would love to hear that this exists in someone’s country… do tell!

  • Valerie Chen

    I think the biggest priority right now is to educate the public about the environmental impact of technological devices. From my own experience, the conversation about carbon emissions seems to have mostly revolved around methods of transportation, and talk about recycling has been limited to bottles and cans and paper. The reality is that high tech trash is an actual problem, and right now, one few think about. Grossman’s book shines a light on this as do sources like this website,, which tells you about the carbon footprint using your computer or even sending a text message has. I’ve read about the extreme hazards posed to the people in developing countries who dismantle our discarded computer products. In terms of manufacturer responsibility searched online and found that Dell is trying to address the issue, which you can check out here:

    There is a perception that maybe because we reduce many different objects into one, from having libraries of novels and yearly calendars and personal address books to having just one smart phone, that using technological devices is shiny and clean. I think it’s important, especially for us as students in a university program which is largely based in the digital world, to be aware of the reality of e-waste, because these products don’t just disappear when we modern, savvy, and fickle humans, don’t want them anymore.

  • Brett

    These are great ideas to think about. Something that hasn’t been addressed here, however, is our responsibility as consumers to make a difference in the amount of tech junk that is actually produced. I agree that consumer electronics manufacturers need to do a better job with making recycling easier and that there needs to be more awareness of the recycling options available, but I think we also need to take a hard look at what we buy and if it’s really necessary. I have a friend who buys a new macbook pro and iPhone every time a new version comes out. He doesn’t bother selling his old devices; they just sit in a drawer in his office unused and depreciating in value. It’s hard – I love gadgets – but I’ve started thinking more and more about the fact that I really don’t need the latest and greatest device as soon as it’s released. Downsizing to a small apartment made me realize just how much STUFF I have and how little I actually use on a daily basis. I think selling tech devices can help, and fixing things when they break instead of just buying a new item is really worth pursuing. Unfortunately, many manufacturers are moving away from user-replaceable hardware. I feel very guilty typing this on a new computer (bought for ITP which I plan to use for many years) where the RAM is soldered directly to the board and the SSD is non-standard. These changes – made for the sake of losing a few centimeters of size – mean I really don’t have the choice to upgrade my machine. I’m actually really sad about this.

    Do you think there is a market for devices that are user-upgradeable or expandable? Would you buy a cellphone that you knew with a little bit of work and some new parts you could upgrade the memory or processor to keep up with the latest technology? I think we’ve seen with the success of projects like the Arduino and Make magazine that there are definitely those who are willing to reuse, upgrade and fix. It’ll be interesting to see if anyone brings these ideas to the computer or phone industries.

  • Ilwon Yoon

    I read this a while ago, and can’t stop thinking about this issue. Not only because I have an interested in protecting environmental issues, but also it is related to the natural disaster we are experiencing in global level. About 10 years ago in high school, I was taught the global warming in science class and the teacher commented that it would be a serious problem in soon future, and now everybody can feel about it. Weather has been extremely changed over years, and these changes reached to the level that we are no longer able to predict and prevent it. (South Korea was known for four distinctive seasons for a long time, but it is almost two seasons now)

    Nevertheless of these global natural issues, most of technological industries do not pay enough attention to their products after treatment, but try to seduce people with cutting edge technologies annually. Of course, companies should not be the only one blamed for these issues, and it is very natural of them to seek to higher profit. However, I strongly doubt that these ever-growing industries would stay with little thought of the future of the Earth. Then what should we do? Someone insists that we must give up all technologies we have, and need to go back to the life without it. The other believes that we can solve all these issue with technological development sometime soon in the future. Both ideas seem to be too pessimistic or optimistic in a way. It is almost impossible that we cut out all electricity and live in the dark, either can totally rely on that technologies will solve everything unless we solely dedicated to stop all these changes. Personally, at this point, what we can do is to take these issues seriously in industrial level as well as personal level.

    Then, my thought moved to where I am now. Making things is always my favorite part of my life, and never doubt about it as wrong things to do. But after throwing several thoughts of environmental issues, I’ve started to look back how much materials I and our ITP communities consume on daily basis, which is incredibly significant amount. Yet, I don’t believe we would be able to stop making things, and don’t think it’s not valuable, but really want to be mindful about what we are consuming. I can’t even answer my question to myself about it, but wish we would be more mindful regarding to this whenever we create things.

  • esw290

    Natalie thank you for venturing into the rabbit hole of despair, I wasn’t ready to but after reading your review, I think I am…. Anyway, this is something I’ve thought a lot about this term. Not just in relation to e-waste and recycling, but also in regards to responsibility we carry as innovators. We are at a point environmentally that the responsibility very much lies with individuals. At ITP, I think that means questioning everything we are putting into a product and design. It doesn’t matter how seemingly insignificant or small the component is, if it’s toxic.
    I also think that it is more important that innovators be slowed down by consideration for bigger questions than sped up hastily.
    “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?”
    YES! But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I would argue that progress is never progress when you are not being mindful. You can’t build a house from dry rot, yes it may take longer to sorce good materials but it will sustainable. This leads to another question that I probably think too much about, does it need to exist in the first place?

  • esw290

    Also an interesting site in relation to this:

  • Peiqi "Su"

    It’s a great pleasure to read through all posts above. What came to my mind is that Chinese traditional philosophy may inspire the solution to those problems.

    In the Chinese traditional philosophy, keeping balance is the most basic principle in the fast changing world. For instance, the idea “Shen-Ke-Bihe” means everything can be the best for something but the worst for others, so there is nothing absolutely good or bad. The good thing could make damages if it is not in an prorate environment. On the contrary, a bad thing may have positive influence when it is used wisely. This idea may be blended in the interaction design of those high tech field.

    Another idea “Identity of Object and Self” wipes out the boundary between object and people. It emphasizes that human and nature are one union. From this point, high tech is a tool which augmented the nature instead of replace nature or control nature. This could always remind that a sense of nature must be maintained in the process of product developing.

    Also the movement of T’ai Chi Ch’uan is a perfect combination of the behavior, spirit and nature, which could trigger some inspirations in those high tech interaction design field. T’ai Chi Ch’uan is a type of internal Chinese martial art. It is practiced for both its defense training and its health benefits. It’s also represent a philosophy: use the hardness and softness in a smart way. This means if one uses hardness to resist violent force, then both of them will be injured to some degree. Such injury,is a natural consequence of meeting violent force with violent force. Instead, if someone meet the incoming force in softness and follow its motion for a short while until the incoming force exhausts itself, or untile the incoming force is redirected.In this way, it is widely believed that “The soft and the pliable will defeat the hard and strong.” Why not apply this philosophy in solving high tech problems? The humanity, people or emotion represent the soft, while the high tech is as the hard.

  • Tianyu "Wu"

    Thank you NATALIE!!This issue is always bond with the responsibility of product designer. For companies, a “good” product designer can design the fancy product that attract people to buy and make them rebuy it again and again (yes!!apple). For society, a good product designer has an ability to guide people be more environmental friendly without eliminating the benefit of the company. But a great designer can achieve complementarity. Take macaroni for example, it can reach “great” level because it looks yummy without letting people eat too much, because the macaroni has large size with the middle empty. It allows eaters to be self-discipline rather than extreme consuming.

    So environmental protector often find it useless to blame people, people seldom feel shame to buy what they want(sorry, me too). Products themselves need to change people ‘s mind subconsciously, Makeing “ environmental friendly” concept invisible or just much interesting. The later is what we could learn from ITP, to combine fun with green. It is not nice to be another kind of trash-maker after graduation.

    Here is another thing I am interested in. China has a big Industry Chain for the digital trash. People can buy a second hand telephone with only 10$, they are always remade from a broken cellphones and reassembled with abandon material. A main reason for this is because the high price of digital devices(Apple, HTC,etc)sold in China. I know this chain also existed in India. But it is a complex issue which including the problem like underground business. Otherwise it could be really fine solution for the digital trash, if we do not mention anything about “GDP” ……

  • Natalie "Tschechaniuk"

    Thanks for the comments and conversation about this issue! I’m really liking the complexity of the responses. it’s a really complex problem–everyone (individuals, governments, corporations alike) is at fault and everyone must take responsibility. It gives me hope that there’s a contingent of people who bring consideration for the environment into their work.

    Brett–I went through the same dilema when I got a new laptop for ITP (it had been soooo long, mostly because I felt such guilt about abandoning a machine that still worked most of the time). It was this article in Wired that steered me away from the Retina
    At the end, the author writes:

    “Today, we choose. If we choose the Retina display over the existing MacBook Pro, the next generation of Mac laptops will likely be less repairable still. When that happens, we won’t be able to blame Apple. We’ll have to blame ourselves.”

    And I felt that summed up the role of the individual — today, we do choose, not only the products we buy but the trajectory of the products that will be available to us in the future.