Electronics sustainability challenge: Miles to go before we sleep…
Communities worldwide are discovering what we began to learn in Silicon Valley several decades ago — that the high-tech revolution carries a high price for health, the environment and sustainable economic development. While high-tech products provide us with extraordinary new ways to communicate and conduct business, they also generate a host of toxic hazards during their lifecycle—from design and production to consumption and disposal. Vast resources are required to manufacture these products, including a wide array of highly toxic materials. Although the health effects of these combined materials are not well understood, workers in silicon chip factories report miscarriages, birth defects, and cancer clusters.
The health burden of e-waste falls on the world’s poorest workers, who labor long hours without basic protections from toxic exposure. The financial burden falls on US taxpayers, who foot local governments’ bills for disposal costs. The scope of the problem is staggering. According to research, US consumers replace roughly 133,000 personal computers per day. Nearly half of all US households have working but unused consumer electronics products stored in closets and garages until a disposal solution becomes available. Roughly 400 million electronics products will be thrown out by 2010. In fact, “e-waste” from rapidly obsolete products is so serious that the Wall Street Journal has called it “the world’s fastest growing and potentially most dangerous waste problem.”
Innovation is the hallmark of the electronics industry. New products emerge constantly: products that are faster, smaller, cheaper and smarter. But each new wave of innovation in electronics technology introduces new and poorly tested materials and pushes last year’s obsolete gadgets and machines into our closets and basements, where they soon become toxic trash in need of disposal. Electronics sustainability means re-framing innovation to address the global challenges of environment, health and workers rights in addition to speed, size, and cost.
Ted Smith is SVTC's founder and former Executive Director. Ted is co-founder and Coordinator of the International Campaign for Responsible Technology (ICRT), an international network committed to working for the development of sustainable, non-polluting technologies. He is also co-founder and Chair of the steering committee of the Computer TakeBack Campaign, which is working to promote life-cycle producer responsibility within the high-tech electronics industry. He is co-editor of the new book "Challenging the Chip: Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry" to be published by Temple University Press, 2006. In 2001, Ted was recognized by the Dalai Lama for his environmental leadership. He is a graduate of Wesleyan University and Stanford Law School.
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