electronics recycling

Electronics’ ‘Dirty’ Secret

U.S. obsession with electronics has huge human price

Posted on August 24, 2017 | By Austin Lombard | Special to In Motion

My cellphone. It’s so much more than just a device.

I use it to call people. I use it to navigate in the car. I use it to look up recipes in the kitchen. I use it as my shopping list in the grocery store. I use it to read the news.

Smartphones like mine and electronics like the computer I’m using to write this are so ubiquitous in modern lives that few question where they come from or where they go. Electronics are so essential to civilization that we take them for granted.

But the amount of resources that go into making these devices is staggering. Manufacturing a single computer and monitor requires at least 530 pounds of fossil fuels, 50 pounds of chemicals and 3,000 pounds of water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also lists copper, silver, gold and palladium as just a few of the valuable metals contained in our electronics.

Even so, the cost of sourcing and manufacturing electronics cannot strictly be measured in mineral resources. All along the supply chain and manufacturing, human labor is required to make them possible. Over the last decade, the ethical implications of sourcing and manufacturing electronics has come into sharp scrutiny, particularly because of its contrast with the exorbitant wealth the industry brings to the engineers living in technology-driven economies in cities like Cupertino, Calif. and Bellevue, Wash.

Infographic courtesy of Kaitlin Barbier

Infographic courtesy of Kaitlin Barbier

Electronics’ ‘dirty’ secret

In 2010, manufacturing giant Foxconn experienced a rash of suicides at its Shenzhen campuses in China, prompting the company to install nets around the manufacturing plant to prevent employees from taking their own lives. The New York Times reported that one 19-year-old victim there worked over three times the legal limit of overtime in the month before his death. In 2015, Reuters news agency reported that South Korean electronics company Samsung agreed to create an $86 million fund to compensate workers who contracted cancer working with hazardous materials at its manufacturing facilities.

Sourcing materials can come at a heavy human cost. Awareness of conflict or “blood” diamonds hit the U.S. mainstream’s attention when Kanye West released his song “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” in 2005. The music video contrasted images of wealthy Europeans and himself wearing diamonds, with images of child slaves mining those diamonds under the watch of armed rebel guards.

What didn’t gain as much attention, however, were other valuable metals with less shine: minerals like copper and cobalt. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2011 report on “Organized Crime and Instability in Central Africa” cited those two minerals as a serious source of funding for organized crime in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Most of us probably own less diamonds than Kanye, but we all have a cell phone.

News reports have prompted electronics industry leaders such as Intel and Apple to establish initiatives to audit their supply chains and manufacturing sites for human rights violations. While a step in the right direction, these measures are not a complete solution. Even Intel’s 2017 “Conflict Minerals White Paper” — a corporate communication detailing its efforts to eliminate conflict minerals from its supply chain — admits that “Conflict-free sourcing is not fully resolved,” even after a decade of diligence. To this day, manufacturing sites draw controversy. Yet, other electronics companies have not bothered to establish official missions to eliminate human rights abuses fromsupply chains and manufacturing processes.

E-wastelands overseas

Our problems with electronics, unfortunately, do not end at manufacturing. The most difficult problem of all lies in the disposal of obsolete or broken electronics, or e-waste. E-waste from printers, monitors, computers and phones contains high levels of toxins, such as lead, mercury and cadmium. Because these toxins can seep out of e-waste and contaminate water sources, it is illegal to send them to landfill in the United States. Because of this, all government agencies urge consumers to recycle used electronics. But that’s the problem…

The Basel Action Network and Massachusetts Institute of Technology worked in partnership to conduct a study: GPS devices were attached to discarded electronics and given to certified recyclers. In the Basel Action Network’s press release, it was reported that about 40 percent of the deliveries were exported, mostly to China. “Recycling” operations in developing countries are typically carried out by people living in abject poverty, using practices that disregard the safety of the laborers and the environment because they are unaware of the dangers the materials pose.

Yuan Chun Li and Banci Lian’s book, “E-waste: Management, Types, and Challenges,”  describes approximately 1.6 million tons of e-waste sent to the junkyard town of Guiyu annually. The air there is thick with lead fumes from de-soldering operations, plastics and flame retardant chemicals are burned in the open with no breathing protection, and runoff from gold reclamation makes water so acidic that merely touching it will burn your skin. Children are stillborn or born with defects at a high rate. Farming villages are transformed into toxic wastelands.

Sustainability key to success

So if recycling is a poor option, what can we do? Some of you might be familiar with the “three R’s” of sustainability: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. These three R’s are listed in order of importance. We need to look at reducing the amount of electronic waste we generate. We can start to do this by taking care of our electronics and by repairing and upgrading devices. When a part breaks or becomes obsolete, we should replace only that part, rather than throwing the entire device away and buying a new one. IFixIt.com is a wiki-styled website with user-contributed repair guides, as well as staff teardowns and reviews that rate devices on the ease with which they can be repaired. New enterprises like Fairphone put human rights, repairability and device longevity first. The first stirrings of change are in the air, if you know where to look.

The ugly burden of our digital age is a complicated problem. Fully solving it requires electronics corporations to change the way they do business. Environmental regulations must be created and enforced to prevent unscrupulous dumping of toxic waste on the impoverished people of our world. Ultimately, layman’s attitudes on electronics need to shift to sustainability, using a device until it cannot be repaired, rather than upgrading every time a new device comes out on the market.

For most of us these requirements may seem out of our hands. But by choosing products built for repairability and longevity, ordinary people can influence the market to produce sustainable products. As business strategist and sustainability expert Brian Moore states in his book, “IT Sustainability for Business Advantage,” one of the biggest factors in promoting sustainability within business is simply that it matters to stakeholders and consumers.

Only when consumers, shareholders, and voting citizens like us begin to refuse to ignore the blood and lead staining our hands, will business and government follow suit.