High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health / Edition 1

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The Digital Age was expected to usher in an era of clean production, an alternative to smokestack industries and their pollutants. But as environmental journalist Elizabeth Grossman reveals in this penetrating analysis of high tech manufacture and disposal, digital may be sleek, but it's anything but clean. Deep within every electronic device lie toxic materials that make up the bits and bytes, a complex thicket of lead, mercury, cadmium, plastics, and a host of other often harmful ingredients.

High Tech Trash is a wake-up call to the importance of the e-waste issue and the health hazards involved. Americans alone own more than two billion pieces of high tech electronics and discard five to seven million tons each year. As a result, electronic waste already makes up more than two-thirds of the heavy metals and 40 percent of the lead found in our landfills. But the problem goes far beyond American shores, most tragically to the cities in China and India where shiploads of discarded electronics arrive daily. There, they are "recycled"-picked apart by hand, exposing thousands of workers and community residents to toxics.

As Grossman notes, "This is a story in which we all play a part, whether we know it or not. If you sit at a desk in an office, talk to friends on your cell phone, watch television, listen to music on headphones, are a child in Guangdong, or a native of the Arctic, you are part of this story."

The answers lie in changing how we design, manufacture, and dispose of high tech electronics. Europe has led the way in regulating materials used in electronic devices and in e-waste recycling. But in the United States many have yet to recognize the persistent human health and environmental effects of the toxics in high tech devices. If Silent Spring brought national attention to the dangers of DDT and other pesticides, High Tech Trash could do the same for a new generation of technology's products.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
For most people, the word "pollution" conjures up images of spewing smokestacks and liquid waste; but according to environmental journalist Elizabeth Grossman, a more insidious pollution is festering in our midst. High Tech Trash is her full-blast wake-up call about the toxic properties of electronic device waste. Each year, Americans discard 5-7 million tons of high-tech "e-trash," a deadly cyber-stew of lead, mercury, cadmium, plastic, and other health hazards. Grossman shows how this menace penetrates far beyond our shores; every day in China and India, shiploads of discarded high-tech devices are "recycled" by hand, exposing thousands of workers and residents to toxins. Her book is a Silent Spring for the new millennium.

"Grossman takes readers on an eyeopening, even shocking tour of the cyber underground, clearly and methodically explicating the science, politics, and crimes involved in the mishandling of the ever-increasing tonnage of e-waste."
author of The End of Nature - Bill McKibben

"Lizzie Grossman is among our most intrepid environmental sleuths—here she uncovers the answer to one of the more toxic questions of our time."
author of The Pine Island Paradox - Kathleen Dean Moore

"[High Tech Trash] will change the way you shop, the way you invest your money, maybe change the way you vote. It will certainly change the way you think about the high tech products in your life."
author of Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash - Elizabeth Royte

"In this astonishingly wide-ranging investigation, Elizabeth Grossman exposes the toxic fallout from manufacturing and discarding high-tech gadgetry."

"Grossman manages to create a coherent, informative and scary narrative out of the births and deaths of electronics from TVs and cell phones to computer monitors and iPods."
Chicago Tribune

"We depend on writers like... Elizabeth Grossman—writers working in the great tradition of bold and rigorous American thinkers, observers, critics and muckrakers from Henry David Thoreau to Upton Sinclair, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson and Bill McKibben—to shake us awake, dispel the fever dream of consumerism and reveal the true cost of our love for technology and our obsession with machines and disposable goods."
Publishers Weekly
Driven by built-in obsolescence and the desire of consumers for smaller, faster and sleeker hardware, millions of discarded plastic computer casings, lead-infused monitors, antiquated cellphones and even dead TV remote controls-the "effluent of the affluent"-are piling up annually in America's landfills, leaching dangerous toxins, including lead, mercury and arsenic, into the nation's water tables. Such cast-off "e-waste" is also being shipped to countries like India and China, where for pennies a day workers without masks or gloves boil circuit boards over primitive braziers to extract microchips (along with a slew of noxious elements), after which the silicon chips are bathed in open vats of acid to precipitate out micrograms of gold. In either instance, according to this alarming and angry study, the way in which America currently handles its cyber-age waste amounts to an ongoing but underreported environmental crisis. Grossman (Watershed: The Undamming of America) points to recycling regulations in Europe as models and demands that manufacturers of high-end technology assume more of the burden for safe disposal of discarded electronics. Her call for action is commendable and critical, but this book's often daunting jargon (pages are given over to a difficult discussion of different kinds of bromodiphenyl ethers and their varying impact on the environment) sometimes undercuts its passion. (May) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Those PCs, VCRs, TVs, and cell phones we replace or discard at the end of their useful lives wind up going to the dump (we think) if they don't get pushed to the back of the closet, and few are actually recycled in a safe manner. But as environmental journalist Grossman reveals in this engaging book, these everyday symbols of the 21st century rely on toxic materials (e.g., lead, mercury, chlorine, flame retardants) born of complex mining operations and chemical reactions, both of which can degrade the environment and affect human health. Grossman follows the trail of electronic waste from landfills in the United States to "recycling" centers in India and China where workers pick apart these products and thereby are exposed to pollutants. Her language is quiet, clear, and compelling as she argues that we follow the European model of regulating materials used in electronic products and e-waste recycling. Strongly recommended for all collections, particularly ecology and environmental collections.-Michael D. Cramer, Schwarz BioSciences, RTP, NC Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Wired - Randy Dotinga
“Grossman manages to create a coherent, informative and scary narrative out of the births and deaths of electronics from TVs and cell phones to computer monitors and iPods.”
Chicago Tribune - Donna Seaman
"We depend on writers like... Elizabeth Grossman—writers working in the great tradition of bold and rigorous American thinkers, observers, critics and muckrakers from Henry David Thoreau to Upton Sinclair, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson and Bill McKibben—to shake us awake, dispel the fever dream of consumerism and reveal the true cost of our love for technology and our obsession with machines and disposable goods."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781597261906
  • Publisher: Island Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 1,431,510
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Watershed: The Undamming of America and Adventuring Along the Lewis and Clark Trail and co-editor of Shadow Cat: Encountering the American Mountain Lion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, The Nation, Orion, High Country News and other publications.

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Table of Contents

The underside of high tech 1
Raw materials : where bits, bytes, and the Earth's crust coincide 17
Producing high tech : the environmental impact 53
High-tech manufacture and human health 76
Flame retardants : a tale of toxics 112
When high-tech electronics become trash 139
Not in our backyard : exporting electronic waste 182
The politics of recycling 211
A land ethic for the digital age 253
App How to recycle a computer, cell phone, TV, and other digital devices 267
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