Electronics Wasteland | April 2, 2007 Issue - Vol. 85 Issue 14 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 85 Issue 14 | pp. 69-70 | Book Reviews
Issue Date: April 2, 2007

Electronics Wasteland

Book details mounting problem of the trash generated by the electronics industry
Department: Books
High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health
by Elizabeth Grossman, Island Press, 2006, 276 pages, $25.95 hardcover (ISBN 1-55963-554-1).
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High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health
by Elizabeth Grossman, Island Press, 2006, 276 pages, $25.95 hardcover (ISBN 1-55963-554-1).

Environmental journalist Elizabeth Grossman's " High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health" is a comprehensive review of the environmental price society is paying now, and will continue to pay, to enjoy the benefits of advanced technology. Did you ever think about what happens eventually to all that plastic in your computer? Have you ever noticed the odd computer in your local landfill site? Ever wonder what would happen to that old computer that sits in your basement storage if you ever got around to getting rid of it?

If you haven't given these questions much thought, you only need to read a few pages of Grossman's book before you begin to realize that society has a problem and something needs to be done about it. There's a mountain of electronic waste out there, it's not easy to recycle, and it's only going to grow larger. While each electronic device may contain only small amounts of hazardous materials such as mercury, gold, silver, and lead, the author makes you stop and consider the impact on the environment when millions of electronic devices containing these metals are sold each year.

Grossman's book chronicles the emergence of the technology industry, the lack of awareness of the environmental impact in the early days, and the challenges to society that lie ahead in terms of managing electronics waste. The book is written in language understandable to everyone and will be of equal interest to readers with a technology background and to those who know nothing about the electronics industry. The book is full of statistics and analyses that raise eyebrows and make one pause in thought, yet it refrains from taking sides.

The author begins with a primer on the electronics sector and its impact on society. She makes one think about the widespread use of such technology. The stage is set, and it does not take long for the plot to unfold.

Grossman next outlines the raw materials inherent in most electronics products, using statistics to make her points. At times, however, the reader will challenge her approach. For example, at first glance it appears overwhelming that in 2003 approximately 90 million transistors were manufactured by the electronics sector for each and every person on the planet. This is one example of what I call the "wow factor" that Grossman uses throughout the book.

But what does that number really mean? Would all of these transistors fit in a large room? A ship? The state of Rhode Island? The reader is left without a clear point of reference. (Semiconductors manufactured today can contain upward of 200 million transistors per device.) Although the author does an excellent job of telling a compelling story, the narrative could have been enhanced by including reference points familiar to the average reader. Nevertheless, Grossman invariably succeeds in getting her point across.

HUMAN IMPACT
A woman in Guiyu, China, in December 2001, is about to smash a cathode-ray tube to remove the copper-laden yoke at the end of the funnel. The glass is laden with lead, but the biggest hazard from this is the inhalation of the highly toxic phosphor dust coating inside.
Credit: © basel action network
8514bookshammer
 
HUMAN IMPACT
A woman in Guiyu, China, in December 2001, is about to smash a cathode-ray tube to remove the copper-laden yoke at the end of the funnel. The glass is laden with lead, but the biggest hazard from this is the inhalation of the highly toxic phosphor dust coating inside.
Credit: © basel action network

Grossman focuses on metals in electronic products such as copper, gold, and silver, and she provides an interesting and detailed review of the mining industry. The perspective she has chosen is from her own visits to mines as a "nonexpert." Many of the anecdotes and interviews regarding the environmental impact caused by the mining industry once again wow the reader. This is sobering information, indeed. However, one cannot help thinking, when reading through this part of the book, that the mining industry was around long before the electronics industry. It is important to keep in perspective that the electronics industry, while certainly having a direct impact on the environment, is not the root cause of open-pit mines and the resulting environmental impact.

A book on technology trash would be incomplete without an overview of the core element in high-tech products—the silicon chip. Grossman outlines how semiconductors are made, including the basic steps involved in making a chip. Although her references to chemical elements and statistics may lose the reader, once again the principal message on the environmental impact comes through.

This overview provides a perfect opening for a detailed analysis of the contaminated groundwater sites in the U.S created by early chip-manufacturing facilities, such as those operated by IBM and Fairchild Semiconductor. For readers who are not familiar with these Superfund sites, this information is probably an eye-opener. Much of this content is dated, however, and there are no smoking guns, but the analysis is an essential part of truly understanding the issue. The author condemns neither the companies in question nor the U.S. government, but she paints a clear picture of the problems that occur when technology moves faster than society's ability to understand the environmental impact. This problem is common to many economic sectors, not just high technology.

The book then moves to a fairly detailed analysis of the flame retardants—polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)—embedded in electronic products to reduce the chance of fire. These compounds will be found in the plastics of virtually every piece of electronics manufactured in the world. Here, Grossman may have provided too much detail. Keeping track of the various PBDEs and their chemical attributes can be taxing. Her points are well made, however, and although the reader may lose focus from time to time, the impact on the environment remains clear.

By this point in the book, the reader will have acquired a good understanding of the background and magnitude of the growing problem of managing high-tech trash. The reader can acknowledge the problem and also likely wants to know what is being done about it.

Grossman comes back to the title of her book—"High Tech Trash"—and outlines what is happening with computers at the end of their life. Some electronics are recycled in the developed world, but there is a significant cost to proper recycling. The lure of dumping high-tech trash into the developing world, where wages and environmental standards are low, has resulted in millions of tons of electronics waste being exported to Africa and Asia. Once again, Grossman piles on the statistics and the wow factor is back. To any North American reader who has not seen the videos of children breaking apart computers in China to retrieve minute amounts of gold and silver or heard this the story before, the author vividly brings home the point that dumping waste on impoverished nations cannot and should not be sustained.

As the book concludes, the reader begins to anticipate a call to action. The background has been provided, the problem is plain, and it is clear that something must be done about high-tech trash. Unfortunately, this is where the book may disappoint. While the author reviews many of the "take back" and end-of-life stewardship programs put in place by industry, the book provides few concrete recommendations as to where we go from here. The author does call for consideration of a "precautionary policy" when it comes to the introduction of new processes and product development, but she includes little analysis.

Perhaps this is the ultimate point of the book: There are no easy answers to the responsible management of growing electronics waste. Still, this book should be required reading for all those with a direct role in the electronics waste problem—from regulators to industry executives to environmentalists and to all of us who enjoy using these technologies.

 

David Betts is president and chief executive officer of Electronics Product Stewardship Canada, an industry-funded corporation established by leading technology firms operating in Canada to address end-of-life stewardship issues for electronic products.

 
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