Wednesday, January 30, 2008

High-tech trashed again

High tech trash is a problem that just won’t go away, and a problem which all of us help (if you're reading this you're included) generate. Whether it’s moving on to a more powerful and streamlined computer or buying the latest and greatest cell phone (and even if you don’t keep up with colorful cell phone trends, most only last a couple of years,) we all generate high tech trash or e-waste.

Though I wrote about this earlier (e-waste impacts in China) the January, 2008 National Geographic has an excellent article about the impact of High Tech Trash, by Chris Carroll, this time focusing on the impacts in Africa.

Here are a few sobering numbers from the article based on 2005 data:

  • Of the roughly 760 tons of discarded TV sets only 13.4% are recycled. Just think of what will happen here in the U.S. when digital TV rules. Though a converter will get those of us with decades old sets tuned in, my guess is the changeover will be at the very least a good excuse for many to make the switch to a newer, slimmer tube (so to speak.)
  • The proportion of discarded computer monitors fared better with 24.5% of the almost 390 tons that were discarded.
  • The “frit” that connects the glass panel to the CRT funnel is 70% lead
  • Pre-1990’s glass panels are 2.5% lead

As usual, at least on the environmental front, the European Union is steps ahead, with mandatory take-back programs and restrictions on the amounts of certain toxic substances incorporated into new electronics.

From the EU’s Removal of Hazardous Substances site: “The RoHS Directive stands for "the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment". This Directive bans the placing on the EU market of new electrical and electronic equipment containing more than agreed levels of lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyl (PBB) and polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants.”

In the EU manufacturers are required to literally take-back electronic goods when consumers are done with them (and with a long history of planned obsolescence – that can be quite frequently with some goods) and manufacturers must ensure that electronics are either responsibly recycled or disposed. The U.S. requires no such thing.

From High Tech Trash:“In the United States, electronic waste has been less of a legislative priority. One of only three countries to sign but not ratify the Basel Convention (the other two are Haiti and Afghanistan), it does not require green design or take-back programs of manufacturers, though a few states have stepped in with their own laws. The U.S. approach, says Matthew Hale, EPA solid waste program director, is instead to encourage responsible recycling by working with industry—for instance, with a ratings system that rewards environmentally sound products with a seal of approval. "We're definitely trying to channel market forces, and look for cooperative approaches and consensus standards," Hale says.

The result of the federal hands-off policy is that the greater part of e-waste sent to domestic recyclers is shunted overseas."

Now, if I could just get my kid, who's been lobbying for a new flat screened TV to read this!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Story of Stuff - now showing on a computer near you!

My friend Cal recently sent around a link to the online video The Story Stuff. After a bit of inter-e-mail discussion by those receiving the email Cal asked if I'd post something about the Story so the discussion could go online. The following is my own experience with the video. We'd be interested in hearing yours - so we hope you'll share your thoughts in the comment section (you don't even have to read through my babble - you can skip right to the comments!) -Emily

Who doesn't use stuff?

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been bombarded by well meaning friends and colleagues with emails about the new 20-minute online video, The Story of Stuff. At the time I was in the middle of teaching a six-week high school workshop on “The Environmental Impact of Your Clothing.” Bingo, I thought, there's one class I wouldn’t have to prepare. Just download, turn off the lights and click.

The Story provides an overview of consumption from raw materials to disposal using clear and engaging cartoon graphics, narrated by Annie Leonard, whom I found equally clear and engaging.

“So what’d you think?” I asked my high school seniors.

“Oversimplified,” said one.

“Yeah, and biased,” said another.

I was surprised - though in some ways impressed. I’d worked with these kids for a couple of weeks and we’re a pretty small class. I knew they cared about environmental issues and that they were aware of the consequences of consumerism. They weren’t very impressed with this clip. Were they too old?

I didn’t think so – while the clip uses simple graphics, it covers a range of ideas that are complex and that really are aimed at adults, not just children. Had they ironically seen to much of this kind of stuff? Or too little?

Well, I thought, so much for that. Guess it’s not so useful after all. I had planned on showing it next semester to my college students but was having second thoughts.

Then one student asked, “What’s up with all that dioxin coming out of the stacks? Does that really happen? And is it really, like, the most toxic chemical?"

Aha. While I had honed my skill as a graduate student when dioxin was “hot stuff,” so to speak – these kids have barely heard of it. And what they have heard, sometimes came from clips like this – or as the prime example of a toxic disaster.

As with many environmental contaminants that have now become just buzz-words, they had no clue as to what dioxin was, how it can be formed, how it enters the environment and what happens when it does. We spent the remainder of the class talking about disposal of toxics, and the current problems caused when dioxins are released by villagers “cooking” e-waste. This issue of e-waste is one that they can all relate to. In fact - in some ways - I'd wished the Story of Stuff had focused a little on e-waste (though I understand the universal approach -we use and toss lots of stuff.)

"Who hasn't," I asked, "bought or tossed or hopefully recycled - something electronic in the past couple of months?"

Reluctant shrugs and sheepish grins all around.

Over-simplified as The Story may be, we're all participants.

It's definitely on the agenda for my Mount Holyoke class this spring - at the very least to spark lively discussion.