My genius friend Caitlin turned me on to the problem of e-waste, which I literally know nothing about.
Read this: Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia[PDF – use a free document reader if you hate Adobe or find that Reader 7.1 doesn’t work with Firefox.]
Electronic waste or E-waste is the most rapidly growing waste problem in the world. It is a crisis not only of quantity but also a crisis born from toxic ingredients – such as the lead, beryllium, mercury, cadmium, and brominated flame retardants that pose both an occupational and environmental health threat. But to date, industry, government and consumers have only taken small steps to deal with this looming problem. This report reveals one of the primary reasons why action to date in the United States has been woefully inadequate. Rather than having to face the problem squarely, the United States and other rich economies that use most of the world’s electronic products and generate most of the E-Waste, have made use of a convenient, and until now, hidden escape valve – exporting the E-waste crisis to the developing countries of Asia.
Basically, we dump our computers, televisions, cellphones and gadgets when we get new ones. (I will point out that we often do this because the computers end up not working for one reason or another that is not hardware-related; I had to junk a roommate’s computer because of an extremely gnarly Windows 2000 bug that had me and a Microsoft tech support guy simultaneously googling for more than six hours on the phone.) And even when people try to be ethical about it and recycle their components, this waste often (50-80%) gets shipped out to Asia, where environmental protection regulations are weaker, labor is cheaper, and Western citizens no longer have to deal with the problem.
Please note that I am morally opposed to describing people as “consumers”, and I am going to try really hard not to do it anymore.
Due to the extreme rates of obsolescence, E-waste produces much higher volumes of waste in comparison to other consumer goods. Where once consumers purchased a stereo console or television set with the expectation that it would last for a decade or more, the increasingly rapid evolution of technology combined with rapid product
obsolescence has effectively rendered everything disposable. Consumers now rarely take broken electronics to a repair shop as replacement is now often easier and cheaper than repair. The average lifespan of a computer has shrunk from four or five years to two years.Part of this rapid obsolescence is the result of a rapidly evolving technology. But it is also clear that such obsolescence and the throw away ethic results in a massive increase in corporate profits, particularly when the electronics industry does not have to bear the financial burden of downstream costs.
Europe and Japan are working on kick-ass legislation which would make manufacturers responsible for the entire life cycle of the product. Does this mean no more 1 year warranties, tech support which is for all intents and purposes geared towards having the support-seeker throw up her hands in frustration and buy a new product, and the creation of flimsy products which are supposed to fail after a year or two? My BFF Matt just talked to a guy at Electronics Boutique who told him that the lifecycle on an Xbox DVD drive is, like, 2 years, and that very few people can play DVDs or even games on an Xbox if they’ve had it longer than that (my Xbox is broken; Matt’s still works, which really impressed the EB guy). And Cory Doctorow is convinced that the shiny white iPod design was meant to attract scratches and fingerprints in order to create motivations for people to buy new ones. (I’m still rocking my 3G iPod, which is considered the freak monstrosity of the iPod world, because I love it and it still works. Plus it’s a 40GB and was fucking $500 when I bought it. Not going to junk that.)
This is a super freaky problem and something I’ve never heard anyone in the industry address. The government is unlikely to do jack shit about it as the US has steadfastly refused to sign the Basel convention treaty which would regulate hazardous waste disposal, and as we all know, Mr. Bush is not too into anything that would impose any sort of burden on big business. The thing is that it has got to be possible to make profitable and environmentally friendly products. Maybe a sort of organic computing brand where you pay more but you get a frisson of self-righteousness upon purchase? Suggestions?