Perils of high-tech waste surround us, author says
by Kristi Heim - Times business Reporter, News Source (Seattle Times)
5 June 2006 –
Environmental writer Elizabeth Grossman explores the toxic underside of our digital age in her new book "High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics and Human Health."
Based in Portland, Grossman became interested in the topic in 2000 after researching pollution in the Willamette River tied to tech and related industries.
Grossman is reading at 7 p.m. today at the University Bookstore in the U District and at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Elliott Bay Book Co.
Here's a transcript of a conversation with her last week.
Q: We tend to think of the high-tech industry as a clean industry, but you're saying it's far from that?
A: Yes. Every point — from collection of raw materials that go into high-tech products to the manufacturing process to when we discard these products — each phase has an impact on our health and environment.
Q: What makes high-tech waste toxic?
A: The lead solder in circuit boards is a well-known neurotoxin. Cadmium, barium, the plastics in electronics, all of these chemicals have a severe impact on our health. Flame retardants seem to be getting out and accumulating in humans and animals.
For the most part, while using your high-tech equipment, these things are not going to leap out and get you, but if you smash the stuff and leave it in a landfill exposed to sun and water, that's when toxins are emitted.
If I had to pick out one component that has a particularly serious health impact, I would pick computer monitors. The screen unit has a cathode ray tube inside, like a TV does. They are really difficult to dispose of properly. The glass in those screens is leaded. Because they're glass, they're fragile and easily broken, and that's when heavy metal is released.
Q: Who coined the phrase "the effluent of the affluent"?
A: That was Jim Puckett, director of the Basel Action Network in Seattle. The people who are buying high-tech equipment in the largest quantities are people in the wealthiest countries, like the U.S., Europe and Japan. We get rid of high-tech equipment as soon as something new comes along.
Because electronics are expensive and difficult to recycle, a large amount has ended up overseas in China, India, Southeast Asia and sometimes to Africa. Millions of tons of electronics are being dismantled under primitive, unhealthy and environmentally unsound conditions in poorer countries.
Q: Isn't it the responsibility of those governments to protect people from this waste?
A: Unfortunately, the pollution doesn't necessarily stay where it is. When plastics are burned, flame retardants and other chemicals used in plastics get into the global air stream and blow around the world. Some of these chemicals are turning up in the Arctic miles and miles from where anyone uses this equipment. There's a reason besides altruism and concern for other people's environment to be concerned.
Q: What's the payoff of selling e-waste for scrap vs. recycling it?
A: People make money selling the equipment for its scrap value rather than having to pay somebody to process it. In the U.S. we don't have any laws that specifically prohibit the export of unwanted electronics for unsound recycling. The Basel Convention was designed to prevent export of hazardous waste, but the U.S. hasn't ratified it.
Q: Is high-tech waste accumulating in our own landfills?
A: It's in our landfills. It's in Canadian landfills. The flame retardants in plastics in electronics are now found in food, animals and people. If you looked at a timeline, the period consumer-electronic use rose parallels the increase in use of these flame retardants.
Q: What's the solution?
A: Two things need to happen. We have to design products that have less of an impact on the environment, products that are easier to recycle and products that last longer. Right now we're relying almost entirely on voluntary measures. Until you cannot put electronics in the trash, somebody will. You also have to have convenient ways to get people to recycle.
Q: What should consumers do with unwanted electronics?
A: First, if you have a piece of working equipment and it can be reused, give it to a reuse organization. If you can, try to use manufacturers' take-back programs, but do get it to a responsible recycler.
Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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