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

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

by Elizabeth Grossman


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781559635547
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 04/17/2006
Edition description: 1
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About 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.

Read an Excerpt

High Tech Trash

Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health

By Elizabeth Grossman


Copyright © 2006 Elizabeth Grossman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-383-2


The Underside of High Tech

The rapidity of change and the speed with which new situations are created follow the impetuous and heedless pace of man rather than the deliberate pace of nature.

—Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, 1962

If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than with sorrow, we must achieve more than just the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as God really made it, not just as it looked after we got through with it.

—President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965

A harbor seal arches her back and dives, a graceful comma of brown on the steel blue water of San Francisco Bay. A school of herring darts through the saltwater off the coast of Holland. A polar bear settles down to sleep in a den carved out of Arctic ice. A whale cruises the depths of the North Sea and a chinook salmon noses her way into the Columbia River on her way home to spawn. In the Gulf of Mexico, a bottlenose dolphin leaps above the waves. A seagoing tern lays an egg. A mother in Sweden nurses her baby, as does a mother in Oakland, California. Tissue samples taken from these animals and from these women's breasts contain synthetic chemicals used to make the plastics used in computers, televisions, cell phones, and other electronics resist fire. Americans have the highest levels of these compounds in their blood of any people yet tested, and the same chemicals have been found in food purchased in grocery stores throughout the United States.

On the shores of the Lianjiang River in southern China, a woman squats in front of an open flame. In the pan she holds over the fire is a smoky stew of plastic and metal—a melting circuit board. With unprotected hands she plucks out the microchips. Another woman wields a hammer and cracks the glass of an old computer monitor to remove the copper yoke. The lead-laden glass screen is tossed onto a riverside pile. Nearby, a man sluices a pan of acid over a pile of computer chips, releasing a puff of toxic steam. When the vapor clears a small fleck of gold will emerge. Up and down the riverbanks are enormous hillocks of plastic and metal, the discarded remains of electronic appliances—monitors, keyboards, wires, printers, cartridges, fax machines, motors, disks, and cell phones—that have all been exported here for inexpensive, labor-intensive recycling. A bare-legged child stands on one of the mounds, eating an apple. At night, thick black smoke rises from a mountain of burning wires. In the southern Chinese city of Guiyu—one of the places in Asia where this primitive recycling takes place—an estimated 80 percent of the city's 150,000 residents are engaged in processing the million or more tons of electronic waste that have been arriving there each year since the mid-1990s.

Mines that stretch for miles across the Arizona desert, that tunnel deep under the boreal forests of northern Sweden, and others on nearly every continent produce ore and metals that end up in electronic gadgets on desktops, in pockets, purses, and briefcases, and pressed close to ears all around the world. In a region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo wracked by horrific civil war, farmers have left their land to work in lucrative but dangerous, landslide-prone coltan mines. Sales of this ore, which is used in the manufacture of cell phones and other devices, have helped finance that war as well as the fighting between Uganda and Rwanda in this mineral-rich region of Africa. Although they are mostly hidden, metals make up over half the material in the world's approximately one billion computers. A typical desktop computer can contain nearly thirty pounds of metal, and metals are used in all electronics that contain semiconductors and circuit boards (which are themselves 30 to 50 percent metal)—from big plasma screen TVs to tiny cell phones. Extracted and refined at great cost, about 90 percent of the metal that goes into electronics eventually ends up in landfills, incinerators, or some other kind of dump.

Traffic on the highway that runs between San Francisco and San Jose is bumper to bumper. Haze rises from the vehicle-clogged road. Office plazas, strip malls, and housing developments stretch out against the backdrop of hills that frame the valley. Pooled beneath the communities of Santa Clara, Cupertino, and Mountain View, California—to name but a few—are thousands of gallons of poisonous volatile organic compounds left by the manufacture of semiconductors. California's Silicon Valley now has more toxic waste sites subject to cleanup requirements under the federal government's Superfund program than any other region of comparable size in the United States. In parts of Mountain View, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found in groundwater levels of trichloroethylene (TCE)—a solvent used in semiconductor production that the EPA recognizes as a carcinogen—that may be sixty-five times more toxic than previously thought. Official estimates say it will take decades, if not a century or more, to complete the cleanup. Families in Endicott and other communities in Broome and Dutchess counties in upstate New York are grappling with the same problem, living above a groundwater plume contaminated for over twenty years with TCE and other solvents used in microchip manufacture.

In the high desert country of New Mexico, the ochre and mustard colored cliffs of the Sandia Mountains rise above the Rio Grande valley. Globe mallow and prickly pear sprout from the sandy soil. This is the third most arid state in the nation, and the past decade has been marked by drought. Yet one of the handful of semiconductor manufacturers located near Albuquerque has used about four million gallons of water a day—over thirty times the water an average American household uses annually—while sending large quantities of toxics into the local waste stream. Similar scenarios have emerged in other parts of the country where semiconductor manufacture has taken place—among them, the Texas hill country around Austin, the Boston area landscape that gave rise to the American Revolution, and the suburban sprawl that surrounds Phoenix. Residents of Endicott, New York, and Rio Rancho, New Mexico, have asked the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry (part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) to assess the health impacts of hazardous air pollutants—including trichloroethylene, methanol, ethylene chloride, and several perfluorocarbons—emitted by high-tech manufacturers located in their communities.

Semiconductors come off the assembly line in numbers that dwarf other manufactured products, but because microchips are so tiny, we're less inclined to think about their environmental footprint. One of Intel's Pentium 4 chips is smaller than a pinky fingernail and the circuit lines on the company's new Itanium 2 chips are smaller than a virus—too small to reflect a beam of light. Producing something of this complexity involves many steps, each of which uses numerous chemicals and other materials and a great deal of energy. Research undertaken by scientists at United Nations University and the National Science Foundation found that at least sixteen hundred grams of fossil fuel and chemicals were needed to produce one two-gram microchip. Further, the secondary material used to produce such a chip amounts to 630 times the mass of the final product, a proportion far larger than for traditional low-tech items. In 2004 some 433 billion semiconductors were produced worldwide, and the number continues to grow.

The Information Age. Cyberspace. The images are clean and lean. They offer a vision of business streamlined by smart machines and high-speed telecommunications and suggest that the proliferation of e-commerce and dot-coms will make the belching smokestacks, filthy effluent, and slag heaps of the Industrial Revolution relics of the past. With this in mind communities everywhere have welcomed high technology under the banner of "clean industry," and as an alternative to traditional manufacturing and traditional exploitation of natural resources. But the high-tech industry is far from clean.

Sitting at my desk in Portland, Oregon, the tap of a few keys on my laptop sends a message to Hong Kong, retrieves articles filed in Brussels, shows me pictures of my nieces in New York, and plays the song of a wood stork recorded in Florida. Traveling with my laptop and cell phone, I have access to a whole world of information and personal communication—a world that exists with increasingly little regard to geography, as electricity grids, phone towers, and wireless networks proliferate. This universe of instant information, conversation, and entertainment is so powerful and absorbing—and its currency so physically ephemeral—that it's hard to remember that the technology that makes it possible has anything to do with the natural world.

But this digital wizardry relies on a complex array of materials: metals, elements, plastics, and chemical compounds. Each tidy piece of equipment has a story that begins in mines, refineries, factories, rivers, and aquifers and ends on pallets, in dumpsters, and in landfills all around the world.

Over the past two decades or more, rapid technological advances have doubled the computing capacity of semiconductor chips almost every eighteen months, bringing us faster computers, smaller cell phones, more efficient machinery and appliances, and an increasing demand for new products. Yet this rushing stream of amazing electronics leaves in its wake environmental degradation and a large volume of hazardous waste—waste created in the collection of the raw materials that go into these products, by the manufacturing process, and by the disposal of these products at the end of their remarkably short lives.

Thanks to our appetite for gadgets, convenience, and innovation—and the current system of world commerce that makes them relatively affordable—Americans, who number about 300 million, own over two billion pieces of high-tech consumer electronics: computers, cell phones, televisions, printers, fax machines, microwaves, personal data devices, and entertainment systems among them. Americans own over 200 million computers, well over 200 million televisions, and about 200 million cell phones (world cell phone sales topped 1 billion in 2006). With some five to seven million tons of this stuff becoming obsolete each year, high-tech electronics are now the fastest growing part of the municipal waste stream, both in the United States and in Europe. In Europe, where discarded electronics create about six million tons of solid waste each year, the volume of e-waste—as this trash has come to be called—is growing three times faster than the rest of the European Union's municipal solid waste combined.

Domestic e-waste (as opposed to e-waste imported for processing and recycling) is accumulating rapidly virtually everywhere in the world that PCs and cell phones are used, especially in populous countries with active high-tech industries like China—which discards about four million PCs a year —and India. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that the world generates some twenty to fifty million metric tons of e-waste each year.

The Wall Street Journal, not known for making rash statements about environmental protection, has called e-waste "the world's fastest growing and potentially most dangerous waste problem." Yet for the most part we have been so bedazzled by high tech, adopted its products with such alacrity, been so busy thriving on its success and figuring out how to use the new PC, PDA, TV, DVD player, or cell phone, that until recently we haven't given this waste—or the environmental impacts of manufacturing such products—much thought.

Compared to waste from other manufactured products, particularly the kind we are used to recycling (cans, bottles, paper), high-tech electronics—essentially any appliance containing semiconductors and circuit boards—are a particularly complex kind of trash. Soda cans, bottles, and newspapers are made of one or few materials. High-tech electronics contain dozens of materials—all tightly packed—many of which are harmful to the environment and human health when discarded improperly. For the most part these substances do not pose health hazards while the equipment is intact. But when electronics are physically damaged, dismantled, or improperly disposed of, their toxics emerge.

The cathode ray tubes (CRTs) in computer and television monitors contain lead—which is poisonous to the nervous system—as do circuit boards. Mercury—like lead—a neurotoxin, is used in flat-panel display screens. Some batteries and circuit boards contain cadmium, known to be a carcinogen. Electronics contain a virtual alphabet soup of different plastics, among them polystyrene (HIPS), acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). A typical desktop computer uses about fourteen pounds of plastic, most of which is never recycled. PVC, which insulates wires and is used in other electronic parts and in packing materials, poses a particular waste hazard because when burned it generates dioxins and furans—both persistent organic pollutants. Brominated flame retardants, some of which disrupt thyroid hormone function and act as neurotoxins in animals, are used in plastics that house electronics and in circuit boards. Copper, antimony, beryllium, barium, zinc, chromium, silver, nickel, and chlorinated and phosphorus-based compounds, as well as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), nonylphenols, and phthalates, are some of the other hazardous and toxic substances used in high-tech electronics. A 2001 EPA report estimated that discarded electronics account for approximately 70 percent of the heavy metals and 40 percent of the lead now found in U.S. landfills.

In many places, solvents that have been used in semiconductor manufacture—trichloroethylene, ammonia, methanol, and glycol ethers among them—all of which adversely affect human health and the environment, have ended up in local rivers, streams, and aquifers, often in great volume. Semiconductor production also involves volatile organic compounds and other hazardous chemicals—including methylene chloride, Freon, and various perfluorocarbons—that contribute to air pollution and can potentially adversely affect the health of those who work with them. Numerous lawsuits have already been brought by high-tech workers who believe their health or their children's has been harmed by chemicals they were exposed to in high-tech fabrication plants.

Manufacturing processes and materials change continually and at a pace that far outstrips the rate at which we assess their environmental impacts—particularly in the realm of chemicals, where new compounds are introduced almost daily. Health and safety conditions throughout the high-tech industry have improved over the years, and the business has become more transparent. But the way in which the United States goes about assessing risks posed by chemicals used in high-tech manufacture has not changed, and many of the environmental and health problems now being dealt with were caused by events that took place over twenty years ago.

Despite the enormous quantity of electronic waste generated, and the fact that we have been producing this trash at accelerating rates since the 1970s, regulations and systems for dealing with this refuse have only recently been developed and put to work. In this, government policies regulating e-waste in the United States lag conspicuously behind those in Europe and Asian-Pacific countries. As of 2006, electronics recycling is mandatory throughout the European Union (although some countries have delayed compliance) and companion legislation restricts the use of certain hazardous substances in electronic products. Recycling is also now mandatory in Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, and it soon will be in Hong Kong and Singapore. As of this writing, comparable national legislation has yet to be introduced in the U.S. Current EPA and industry estimates find that no more than 10 percent of Americans' discarded consumer electronics are being recycled. Given the volume of electronics purchased and discarded in the United States, that still we rely largely on voluntary measures to keep high-tech trash from harming the environment is like using a child's umbrella to stay dry during a monsoon.


Excerpted from High Tech Trash by Elizabeth Grossman. Copyright © 2006 Elizabeth Grossman. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface     xi
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     212
A Land Ethic for the Digital Age     256
How to Recycle a Computer, Cell Phone, TV, or Other Digital Devices     269
Notes     275
Selected Bibliography     309
Index     325

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