High Tech Trash: A Discussion with Author Lizzie Grossman

Part 1 | 2 | 3


World's Fair note: This new author-meets-blogger series of posts was written by guest blogger and new father Jody Roberts, author of previous posts on endocrine disruption and organic farming research.

On behalf of The World's Fair, Roberts recently sat down with Elizabeth (Lizzie) Grossman, independent journalist, to talk about her book High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxins, and Human Health.

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High Tech Trash has been well reviewed and well received. All the while, as we were making reference to it in a post on "What We Waste," Grossman was contributing to Salon and Grist and more by speaking to the themes of her book and the general context of e-waste and the environment.

This is the sixth in our series of "Author Meets Bloggers" posts, where we talk to authors about their new work. (See them all here.) What follows below is part one of a three-part conversation about High Tech Waste. We encourage you to post questions or comments for Lizzie Grossman and other readers. And note that the book is out in affordable paperback next month.


THE WORLD'S FAIR: Can you offer us a brief synopsis of the book?

ELIZABETH ("Lizzie") GROSSMAN: High Tech Trash explores the environmental and health impacts of the entire life cycle of high tech electronics - from raw materials, through the manufacturing process, to what happens when we dispose of and recycle this equipment. One of my aims for the book was to connect Information Age equipment - the digital wizardry that's brought us cyberspace and virtual reality - with its origins and fate in the natural world. So I visited mines, smelters, chip fabrication plants, and electronic recycling facilities. I visited communities living with ongoing pollution problems created in the first decades of high tech manufacturing and spoke to scientists studying the global transport of persistent pollutants emerging from computer equipment. I also spoke with dozens of people in business, public policy and environmental and consumer advocacy working to solve these problems.

WF: What got you interested in this as a topic?

EG: It was while researching point source pollution in the Willamette River, the river that flows through the city of Portland, Oregon where I live (the river is just a few blocks from my house), that I first became interested in what became the subject of High Tech Trash. Back in 2000, I learned from data publicly available from the Environmental Protection Agency, that high tech and related industries - silicon wafer manufacturers, chip production plants and other factories that make components for high tech electronics - were responsible for the majority of toxic pollution released directly into the Willamette. Surprised to learn that this so-called "clean industry" had such environmental impacts, I decided to investigate further. The overall impacts are far greater than I ever would have guessed.

WF: When we think of high tech manufacturing, or high tech goods, we often think of Silicon Valley, clean rooms, tiny robots assembling other tiny electronics. But far from clean, you're suggesting that electronics manufacturing is actually quite 'dirty'. Can you tell us a little about that?

EG: One way to think about this is in terms of how material-intensive high tech electronics are. Think about a laptop computer, cell phone, digital camera or something like a Blackberry. These are compact, even tiny machines, but they are extremely complex. And what actually makes them work - the semiconductors and silicon wafers are even more complex. While these devices are very, very small - I was told that the circuit lines on what are now not the tiniest or fastest chips available, were smaller than a virus, too small to reflect a beam of light - dozens and dozens of steps and scores of different materials (many hazardous or toxic) are involved in their creation. So in a number of ways, high tech electronics are, arguably, the most material intensive mass-produced consumer products ever made.

Electronics manufacturing has become much more resource efficient over the past ten years and environmental improvements are continually being made, but the industry has a long and lasting legacy of serious pollution - in both manufacturing and end of product life.

WF: What about regulations and work conditions and the like?

EG: Making silicon wafers and semiconductors has involved huge volumes of chemicals and processes that have released solvents and other hazardous compounds into waste water that winds up in local rivers, streams and underground water sources. Air pollution regulations have changed part of this picture, but in the 1980s, electronics manufacturing also released significant quantities of hazardous air pollutants that included greenhouse gasses. The Silicon Valley region of California has more hazardous waste sites eligible for clean up under the U.S. federal Superfund program than any other similar sized region in the country, and it is not the only place where the electronics industry has had similar impacts. Again, current working conditions are very different than what they were in the 1970s and '80s, but the electronics industry also has a legacy of worker health problems - resulting from worker exposure to hazardous chemicals - that are a subject of ongoing study, debate and concern.

WF: As a freelance journalist, I imagine you're very dependent on electronic devices for keeping in touch in remote locations. How did writing this book affect your own attitudes and habits with regards to electronic devices?

EG: One of the charming ironies of working on this book was realizing that everyone involved with solving the environmental problems posed by making and disposing of electronics is dependent on these digital devices for their work. And in fact, I don't think these problems would be getting the attention they now are without the telecommunications these devices enable.

One of the problems to be solved, however, is not strictly a materials one, but one of consumption. How many gadgets and how many new gadgets do we really need? Personally, I'm pretty conservative in my electronics habits. Yes, I have a cell phone and laptop plus printer and backup devices, a small radio that also plays tapes and CDs, and I just bought my first digital camera about a month ago. But I don't have an MP3 or DVD player, PDA, electric coffee maker, or a working TV, and tend to wait until something breaks to replace it.

Thinking more broadly, one of the biggest things working on this book made me wonder about is where all the electronic equipment being used in countries without access to recycling systems and infrastructure goes when it becomes obsolete. Computers and cell phones are now essential to education, health care, government, and commerce so we need a way to handle obsolete equipment safely wherever it's used.


Part 1 | 2 | 3

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This is actually a topic we've been discussing lately... we have a remarkable number of obsolete electronics around our house (many of which were "gifts" that other people who didn't want them anymore). One of the reasons we have been so willing to take this junk is that many people don't even realize they need to property dispose of electronics. What kind of education do you believe would be effective in promoting recognition that the cost of electronics goes beyond the ticket price?

Thanks for the interesting interview - I look forward to the next entries.

One of the things that has always struck me about high tech and new tech is the extent to which we tend to fixate on what kinds of worlds those technologies enable (new modes of communication and habitation and self-conception) rather than the kinds of worlds those technologies require in order to function as they do (modes of production and distribution, patterns of disposal and wealth). But if these technologies pose a paradox (e.g., the empowerment offered by a site like scorecard.org, which lets one know about toxic pollution while at the same time inviting you to participate in proliferating that pollution), while at the same time seemingly offering an internal justification for their own replacement (in the mode of planned obsolescence), how can we change our relationship to these things to maximize benefit and minimize impact? Without ending up in a kind of de facto opt out?

These are impossible questions, I suppose, but would be interested to get the author's take on them.