World's Fair

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

WF: Speaking of China, Environmental Science and Technology has been reporting a lot lately about the effects the dismantling of electronics has on workers and local populations. This is especially so because of exposure to flame retardants in the gadgets. Is this information actually new? What do you see coming out of these new studies? Will any of this change the business of electronics recycling in China?

EG: News of the environmental and health impacts of primitive e-waste processing that’s been going on in China has been emerging since at least 2002 if not earlier. Flame retardants, plasticizers, heavy metals, and carbon black are among the contaminants released by this work. The newest studies are confirming what earlier studies found – including those done by NGOs the Basel Action Network, Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, and Greenpeace International. As these studies accumulate, along with additional scientific investigation of the specific health impacts of these substances, it’s increasingly clear that these effects are indeed seriously hazardous. One study just published in the July 2007 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives found elevated blood levels of lead in children in Guiyu, one of the southern Chinese cities that’s been a center for e-waste processing.

Will this change things? I hope so. But it’s important to remember that e-waste is being dealt with similarly in many places besides China, and in some places – around Lagos, Nigeria for example – large amounts of e-waste is simply being dumped in uncontained landfills. But the more these problems become known, the faster they may be solved, or so I like to think.

WF: With all of these possible health concerns, is recycling really such a good idea?

EG: Ideally, new equipment would be made without toxic materials so that materials recovery from obsolete equipment would not create environmental or health hazards. A number of changes have recently been made in that direction and more such improvements are in the works. But there is an enormous amount of old equipment that contains lead solder, heavy metals in paint, coatings and other components, plastics that release dioxins and furans when burned, and that contain hazardous flame retardants, computer monitors with leaded glass – tons of this equipment is still in use and at some point will enter the waste stream.

In the case of metals, it is certainly much more resource efficient to recover and reuse metals from high tech electronics than it is to mine and process the equivalent amount of raw ore. Arguments can be made for and against reusing particular plastics – but reuse does seem to cut down on raw material extraction, which has huge impacts. Leaded glass can be put to new use, and recycling or putting other hazardous components, such as old batteries, into materials recovery is environmentally preferable to trashing them.

WF: And why do we have so many flame retardants in our electronic gadgets anyhow?

EG: The U.S. has very high flame retardant standards – for electronics, fabrics and other products. It turns out that the brominated flame retardants that have been used in electronics – in the plastic casings and also in circuit boards and wires – can migrate out of finished products, both in use and when they’re disposed of. A number of major electronics manufacturers are moving away from these particular flame retardants given the scientific evidence of adverse impacts that’s accumulating. The trick will be to continue to make equipment that resists combustion sufficiently to meet fire standards but that does not contain toxic chemicals. I don’t have all the specifics but I know some manufacturers are changing designs and choice of structural materials for certain components.

WF: What’s the moral of the story here? Or, put more academically, how does this story help us think about the intermeshing of our land ethic and our seemingly disconnected high tech world?

EG: One of the things that really struck me about this story – that of the environmental and health impacts of high tech electronics – is that while this Information Age technology has in many ways divorced us from the natural world and rendered geography less important (in terms of access to information and communications), the physical equipment that enables it is utterly dependent on natural resources. And how we produce and dispose of used equipment (we’ve been going through this equipment at an extraordinary and accelerating rate) has a huge impact on the environment and human health.

What I learned has also made me think that in many ways the high tech electronics industry is being pushed to deal with its used products in ways that other industries have not – look at the past few years burst of electronics recycling laws, regulations that increasingly involve producers – and that this may help usher in a new wave of thinking about what it means to be a responsible consumer and a responsible manufacturer.

I also think this story points to another challenge posed by our high tech world – that of history and patience. We tend to be bedazzled and absorbed by every next new thing and often forget that past environmental problems are far from solved. Maybe easy access to all this information (provided we keep it accessible) will help sustain awareness and involvement.

Part 1 | 2 | 3