As an environmental journalist, Grossman was conducting research on the Willamette River, near her home of Portland, Ore., where many chip manufacturers like LSI Logic house their plants. She was evaluating progress of the river's cleanup, after years of contamination from pulp and paper plants in the area, when she realized its water quality was getting worse, not better. Data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) showed that river pollutants were on the rise, thanks to tons of chemicals flowing into the basin from roughly a dozen silicon wafer manufacturers, according to Grossman.
"I was just astonished because I had believed that high tech was this clean industry and it was going to be a transition away from the battle days of smoke stacks and nasty things coming out of drainpipes," Grossman said.
She turned to the so-called toxics release inventory--a report on the toxic chemicals that the EPA requires companies to provide when they release over a certain volume of toxins in the form of smoke or liquid. That prompted further investigation into the high-tech industry's practices, and the result is Grossman's recently published book, "High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health."
CNET News.com caught up with Grossman while she was in the San Francisco Bay Area promoting her new book to talk about the health hazards of electronics, the politics of recycling, and how to dispose of a PC.
Q: Which consumer electronics have the most the deleterious effects on human health and the environment?
Grossman: If you're talking about the most hazardous component when high-tech electronics are disposed of, I would easily pick the cathode-ray tube (CRT)--bulky screens that are our traditional desktops and televisions--because that glass in the screen contains barium (and) titanium and...the back components contain quite a lot of lead. If they break or crack, the heavy metal stuff can be released.
There are different legacy issues in terms of manufacturing, too, such as looking back to the 1970s and 1980s, when a lot of semiconductor manufacturers started in a big way. It turns out that an awful lot of the chemicals that are used in that process were stored in underground tanks that leaked. Now Silicon Valley has more superfund sites--sites that are so severely polluted that they qualify for a special cleanup program under the EPA--than any other similar-sized regions of the country. There's an enormous amount of groundwater contaminated with things like trichloroethylene and some related chemicals.
Many companies including CNET, publisher of News.com, have switched to LCDs (liquid crystal displays) from the CRTs, which can produce between 3 pounds to 4 pounds of lead. Does that mean things that are looking up?
Grossman: Well what the changeover to the flat screens means is that pretty soon nobody is going to be making those big, heavy-leaded CRTs anymore. So in a lot of ways, that's good in terms of reducing environmental impacts. But that also means we're going to have a pretty big waste challenge, because when all those CRTs get disposed of, they really need to be disposed of properly, so they don't end up in landfills, and they don't end up being taken apart under poor conditions, (in which) the people who are dismantling them get exposed to the heavy metals.
Most people don't spend much time thinking about the ins and outs of manufacturing, recycling or even getting rid of consumer electronics until it's time to take out the trash or buy something new. So in your research, what have you found that would shock most people?
Grossman: What is the most shocking fact, aside from just the raw numbers, is the enormous volume of the stuff that we're getting rid of. In the United States, we seem to be disposing of about 250 million computers every year, and we only are currently recycling about 10 percent of that. The rest of these things are either being thrown away--the EPA estimates that about 2 million tons of electronics are going to landfills in the United States each year--(or) being sent to developing countries like China, India, Southeast Asia...even Africa, where some of them are just simply dumped. Of the stuff that's being sent to India and China, it's being dismantled and materials are being recovered under really appallingly primitive and hazardous conditions.
Could you put more of a face on that and describe the effect on those countries?
Grossman: It's happened because there are a lot of valuable metals in electronics and the scrap metal market right now is booming as never before. This kind of primitive recycling has been going on for at least 10 years now. (Much) of the stuff gets shipped over from the United States (and) from Europe, Japan and other places. (Here) we don't actually have any laws that specifically prohibit the export of electronics for recycling. Europe does, but the stuff gets out anyway.
What it's meant for the communities over there is that because so much of the leaded glass and plastics have simply been thrown in piles by rivers, there has been a lot of open burning of plastics. The water supply in some communities in Southern China is completely undrinkable. There are levels of heavy metals and some synthetic chemicals that are tens and hundreds of tons higher than (acceptable) international safety standards.
What are these governments doing about this?
Grossman: The Chinese government has officially been trying to crack down on it, but the problem is that something will get stopped, and then it sort of pops up somewhere else.
Part of the reason it's happening is because of the way computers have been designed, particularly the older ones that are entering the waste stream now. They're really hard to take apart, and it's an expensive, labor-intensive process. Like so many industries, people will send something where labor is cheap and environmental regulations are lax and oversight is sporadic or nonexistent.
That leads to my next question. Who do you think is responsible for taking care of these problems?
Grossman: A lot of people are responsible.
The really tricky thing is that as an individual consumer if you take some equipment to a recycler, it's actually rather hard to know without asking a lot of questions exactly what that recycler is doing with it. So, there's a whole chain of responsibility.
Right now, virtually all the major electronic manufacturers have some kind of take-back and recycling program--whether it's Hewlett-Packard or Dell or Apple Computer or Sony. I really like the idea of returning used equipment or obsolete equipment to the manufacturer. That presumably will give an incentive to design things that are easier to recycle and contain less toxic materials.
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