World's Fair

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Part II with Lizzie Grossman, author of High Tech Trash, follows below. All entries in the author-meets-bloggers series can be found here.

WF: At least once a month, someone’s invoking Thomas Friedman to say new information technologies have made the world ‘flat’ and national borders meaningless. That perspective has always seemed naïve and superficial. (As a friend of mine points out, just because five people in a town have internet access doesn’t mean the world is suddenly flat.) At best, I’d say the world is lumpy. Does your story about electronics manufacturing, recycling, and destruction fit into this? It does seem to reinforce the evidence of a ‘global economy’, but it also demonstrates pretty well the maintenance of inequalities (meaning, perhaps, that national borders really do matter).

EG: The electronics industry is global in every possible respect. From raw material extraction and processing, to component and equipment manufacture and equipment assembly and marketing, to what happens when equipment is discarded or recycled – each one of these steps has a truly global reach, as does the impact of pollution released throughout electronics’ life cycle. However, I think it would be simplistic to suggest that because the industry and its environmental impacts are global, national boundaries and politics do not matter.

Certainly, global air and ocean currents, the movements of pollutants through the world’s atmosphere have no regard for political borders. But industry – and electronics is no exception – continually moves to where costs are cheapest. In the case of high tech, this now means a concentration of electronics manufacturing and e-waste processing in places in Asia and southeast Asia, for example, where environmental regulations are less stringent (and wages lower) than in Europe or the U.S. So I think to the extent that local laws and labor standards influence environmental and labor practices, national boundaries do matter.

WF: But there’s more to it?

EG: Right. On the other hand, given the global nature of the electronics industry European laws that set materials standards (the Restriction on certain Hazardous Substances, RoHS for short) have in effect become worldwide standards as economic efficiencies make it sensible to make equipment that can be sold in all markets. Without a doubt, the information sharing that high tech electronics enable has created networks and connections that do in many ways eliminate geographic obstacles, but when it comes to how and where equipment is manufactured and how we manage obsolete equipment, geography, national and local policy do indeed matter.

WF: What, then, is the relationship between, say, a kind of environmental justice (of the NIMBY type) and the globalization of manufacturing and deconstructing high tech electronics?

EG: I’m not sure it makes sense at this point in time to think about environmental justice with any sort of NIMBY perspective. Or at least it shouldn’t. Given the complexity of high tech electronics, virtually no single company makes all the components used in its equipment; all have dozens if not scores or hundreds of different suppliers, usually located all over the world. And when computers and other digital equipment becomes obsolete many of its materials and components wind up traveling the world for materials recovery and processing.

So ideally, environmental justice advocates should be demanding that what would be acceptable practices and labor conditions at home in the U.S. or Europe, for example, should be the standard everywhere. This is written into part of the EU’s directive on electronics recycling but it does not seem yet to be easily or well enforced. Major manufacturers also maintain that suppliers and overseas facilities comply with their domestic standards, but it is sometime hard to verify, especially where suppliers are concerned. And when it comes to air or water pollution resulting from electronics manufacture or e-waste, it’s ultimately in all of our backyards, no matter where it was initially released.

WF: Does this tie into international politics as well? I’m thinking of the increasing press and pressure on China because of their green house gas emissions, not to mention toxic Elmo’s, but I’m also thinking of a more general environmental health consciousness that may be developing there. I’d think folks in the US would feel sympathetic to their concerns and see the growth of environmental awareness as a real plus for places like China. Yet, there’s little discussion about the industry China has made out of dealing with our waste. How do you make sense of this?

EG: What doesn’t seem to get all that much ongoing attention is the fact that we export a huge amount of waste and scrap, and that much ends up in less developed countries, including places like China where manufacturing is booming. This is definitely a matter of international politics.

There’s an international agreement called the Basel Convention that was designed to curtail the export of hazardous waste, particularly from richer to poorer countries and to prevent export of such waste without specific agreement from the country where it is going, where it would have to be dealt with safely and responsibly. The U.S. is one of the few industrialized countries that has not ratified this agreement. The U.S. state and commerce departments and EPA have many explanations as to why the agreement’s not been ratified, but the upshot is that tons of hazardous electronic waste continues to be exported from the U.S.

Part of the reason so much of this e-scrap is going to China, as you mention, is because the scrap metal industry is so active there, given all the construction and manufacturing going on. Recent news about global pollution and the global export of manufactured products containing unwanted toxic materials has begun to bring home the problems associated with this whole cycle – and with allowing hazardous and toxic materials into the design of any manufactured products, whether electronics, toothpaste or toys.

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