Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Silent Threat of e-Waste

Hardly anyone talks about it, but the threat is astounding. According to Giles Slade in his book, Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America (published by Harvard University Press.) e-waste may become "the greatest biohazard facing the entire continent."

E-waste is comprised not only of discarded computers but the very hottest consumer electronics, like ipods and cell phones, and all their combinations. One hundred million cell phones were thrown out in 2005 alone. All of these devices are prettily on sale at your friendly neighborhood mall or shopping center or Big Box outlet. And online, too.

In his book, Slade places the e-waste problem in the right context: of our consumption habits, which are partly fed by the carefully nurtured assumption that (as I heard a performance artist put it tonight) there is such a place as "Away." As in, "just throw it Away."

Made to Break recently won the U.S. Independent Publisher Book Award national gold medal for best environmental book of 2006. There's talk of a TV documentary. The following is a shorter version of my review of this book published in the San Francisco Chronicle:

As Steven Wright famously said, "You can't have everything. Where would you put it?" So you get rid of the old stuff, but what makes it old? The idea of products built not to last irks us, but for a variety of reasons we routinely discard devices that work just fine. Obsolescence by any other name has helped nourish a sweet economy, but a hidden cost is coming due fast, in the poisonous waste quickly overwhelming the world's capacity to deal with it.

Giles Slade, who describes himself as an "unaffiliated scholar," produces these numbers in "Made to Break": At least 90 percent of the 315 million still-functional personal computers discarded in North America in 2004 were trashed (it was 63 million just a year before), and more than 100 million cell phones -- 200,000 tons worth -- were thrown away in 2005. Cell phones are especially dangerous, because their toxic components are too small to disassemble and recycle. They are also being trashed with amazing speed, with the shortest life span of any electronic product.

Things are likely to get much worse in the near future, thanks to better enforcement of the international ban on exporting hazardous waste expected in coming years ($100 bills taped to the inside of inspected cartons currently help grease this activity, Slade notes), and especially due to the FCC-mandated switch to high definition TV in 2007, which may result in millions of suddenly junked televisions. "This one-time disposal of 'brown goods' will, alone, more than double the hazardous waste problem in North America."

The overall effect is profound. "As the waste piles up in the United States, above and below ground" Slade writes, "contamination of America's fresh water supply from e-waste may soon become the greatest biohazard facing the entire continent." Even if there were places to take the stuff offshore, there won't be enough ships to carry it.

"We are standing on the precipice of an insurmountable e-waste storage problem that no landfill program so far imagined will be able to solve." This assessment frames Slade's examination of the various kinds of obsolescence that contribute to the problem. A new machine that does something different (the PC), or adds new capability (cell phone versus land line) or adds new features (cell phones with Internet, etc.) is an obvious incentive for a consumer to replace the old machine. But besides the apparent progress of the new and improved, there are other factors that encourage consumers to buy and rapidly throw away products.

Changes in style (the annual model change adopted by the auto industry being the best-known example) and appeals to status encouraged by massive advertising are major forms of "psychological obsolescence," specifically designed to create demand for new versions of old and still usable products. But another way of selling new machines at a faster rate is to make sure the old ones break down sooner. This practice of "death-dating" is what most people think of when they hear the term "planned obsolescence."

The book ends where it began, with concise warnings about the perils of e-waste, and a call for "technological literacy." Just because cyberspace is invisible, and few people know or care how cell phones work, doesn't mean these new devices are as ethereal as magic. They have costs. We're paying in fuel and air pollution to power them (George Gilder projects that Internet computing will soon require as much power as the entire U.S. economy did in 2001), and to make them (author Hunter Lovins estimates the manufacture of a laptop computer creates 4,000 times its weight in waste.) Now toxic e-waste joins the mountain range of rubble from our throw-away economy. In the 21st century, garbage is becoming our most important product.

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