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Sunday, 03 September 2006

Making a World of High-Tech Garbage 

ImageIn "Silent Spring," Rachel Carson informed the world of the devastation caused by DDT. In "High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxins, and Human Health," Portland author Elizabeth Grossman introduces us to a new threat to global health -- the toxins associated with the manufacture and disposal of high-tech devices. Grossman has uncovered a world most of us would rather not consider; the environmental downside to our increasingly high-tech way of life. Grossman (who writes book reviews for The Oregonian) follows the life of electronic products from manufacture through disposal. Raw materials for electronic devices include heavy metals, which have been linked to cancer and neurological damage. During manufacturing, toxic emissions from high-tech plants can include ammonia, hydrochloric acid and nitric acid. In the period between 2000 and 2003, a single manufacturing company dumped an average of 1 million pounds of toxics into the Willamette River each year. Chemical compounds known as PBDEs are a commonly used flame retardant for electronics. They're now showing up in the food supply.

Electronic devices are routinely discarded. In the United States, there are few regulations regarding recycling for such trash. There is scant information on how much e-trash is simply dumped in landfills (making it easy for heavy metals to leach into groundwater), how much is exported (sending the problem to impoverished communities overseas), recycled or reused. Mountains of waste are shipped to China, where chopped-up circuit boards are roasted in uncovered pans to melt away plastics and isolate valuable metals for resale. In Minnesota, where almost every body of water is considered polluted, e-trash is predicted to generate 22 tons of mercury and 565,000 tons of leaded monitor glass over the next 10 years.

There are some positive notes in this grim picture. The United Nations Environmental Program is considered phasing out PBDEs under the provisions of its Stockholm Treaty on Persistent Organic Pollutants. Maine and California have banned certain items from their landfills and barred specific hazardous substances in products to be sold in their states. Grossman offers suggestions for responsible electronics disposal, including sending computers to Free Geek, a Portland nonprofit that refurbishes old machines.

"We can't take back the millions of tons of high-tech trash already in the world's landfills," Grossman writes, "but we can apply some of the ingenuity that has created the products of the Digital Age to making those products ecologically sound."


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