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High Tech Trash: An Interview with Elizabeth Grossman
Sarah Rich, 28 Jun 06

hightechtrash.jpg In the grand scheme of things, the waste that weekly fills our curbside trash and recycling bins is mostly of a household variety: food containers, junk mail, used bathroom and cleaning supplies. We don’t throw out things like cell phones, computer parts and appliances very often, but when we do, this electronic waste ("e-waste") wreaks widespread havoc as it travels through a clumsy, poorly distributed global disassembly and decomposition process.

We've talked quite a bit at WC about emerging standards and legislation for better e-waste recycling, about corporate responsibility for taking back used products, about evolving design to make efficiency, upgrading, disassembly and remanufacturing simple. All of these efforts at progress are gaining acceptance and importance. But our planet is still being littered with the detritus of rapid technological progress -- one of those semi- (or mostly) hidden systems that persists largely because of its invisibility.

Environmental journalist Elizabeth Grossman got a glimpse behind this curtain while researching point source pollution in the Willamette River in 2000. What she discovered was that over half that pollution came from high-tech industries -- chip manufacturers, silicone wafer manufacturers, and companies that make metals products for high tech were responsible for millions of gallons of solvents, nitrates and metals flowing down the river.

Grossman set out to investigate the systems that cart and dump high tech trash around the world. The result is the newly released High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health. It's not all digital doom and gloom, though. Grossman spends a great deal of time discussing the evolution of tech recycling, the advantages of mining circuit boards instead of natural landscapes, and possibilities for a cleaner, healthier tech industry. Her book ends with what she calls a Land Ethic for the Digital Age -- inspired by Aldo Leopold's momentous Land Ethic -- which points out that due to the nature of the industry, and the state of the world today, this is an issue in which we are all implicated. But because of the incredible speed and relative transparency of the digital world, we have before us the possibility for solutions to emerge and mature quickly and globally. As Grossman puts it:

Technology is not going to solve anything on its own, but the fact that we’re using high tech to look at these problems, make people aware of the problems, and implement solutions, is actually going to help solve them, because the minute somebody publishes a report, or a solution becomes available, everyone can see it.

I sat down with Lizzie recently to talk about her book. Below is a transcript of our conversation:

SR: Over the course of the two years that you were working on it did you find that the information available on this was escalating pretty quickly? It seems that this is starting to peak…

EG: One of the really tricky things about working on the book is that I really almost instantly discovered that there were no books on the subject. There was only one collection of papers that was published after I started working on this. It was quite academic -- incredibly useful, but very academic, technical stuff. But otherwise, there is a huge amount of information out there but it is all written for peer review journals. It’s either scientific -- sort of on the toxic end of things -- or for engineers or professionals who are in high tech. I think there is going to be more and more information on it, but I think my book is the only one that’s tried to put this together for a general reading audience. There are bookshelves full of things on tech or the high tech business, but almost none of them talk about materials or manufacturing.

SR: Nothing about the beginning or end of life.

EG: No there is nothing about the end of life, absolutely nothing. There have been people Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition that have been tracking health impacts to workers for years, but I couldn’t find anything that was looking at the raw materials through end of life, so I just kind of had to put that together myself.

SR: In some of the promo material about your book, there's a comparison to Silent Spring; that this is the call to this cause. It makes a lot of sense to me that this is what you're doing - raising sort of the first eyebrows among consumers that this is something really dangerous.

EG: The place where I sort of found the Silent Spring comparison is that 40 years ago,
when Silent Spring was published, there was this impression that we responded by saying, "Ok these terrible chemicals are out there; this isn’t going to happen again." And it's true, some of those chemicals were banned; but it turns out that even though they're not being actively used, they are still in the environment. The thing that I was so struck by was that we haven’t changed our practices. We’re still inventing new synthetic chemicals, putting them into mass production, putting them into consumer products without testing -- certainly not their long-term health and environmental impacts -- so the cycle is just perpetuating itself, while we have the impression that we kind of solved that problem and have moved on.

And the other thing that I was struck by in a historical timeframe was that high tech really started escalating and coming into its own in the 1970s. So you can look back at the industrial age, mid 20th century business and industry, and say that we didn’t know about these impacts and we weren’t thinking about those things. But tech is something that came into its own in the 1970s and 1980s - that sort of environmental conscience has been raised at that point. Yet the profile of the industry was on what this stuff can do -- the cyber space, the virtual reality, the information processing -- completely divorced from the physical and natural world. And that's one of the things I wanted to do was to put high-tech electronics in an ecological context and connect them to their origins and the end of their lives in the natural world and how they interact with people physically, because we’ve just completely ignored that.

SR: I thought that was one of the greatest things about the book was how much the nature writer voice comes out. There are these beautiful descriptions of nature -- and even beautiful descriptions of piles of e-waste -- that are very poetic. I think it is effective in terms of your message and mission that you contextualize the complex issue within the beauty of the natural world.

EG: I think that was one of the hardest things about writing about this book. I remember at some points having all these notes and sitting down with some friends and thinking, I don’t know how I’m going to write about this because it’s so technical, and I got interested in this stuff because I like looking at the landscape and I care about it. All of a sudden I’m confronted with these mounds of chopped up plastic and landscapes that are completely industrial or they have big holes in the ground.

And I also think bringing in the health impacts and how this stuff affects people is really important. I didn’t have my camera, it broke while I was sort of out working on this, so I thought, I’m not going to be able to take a picture so I’m going to have to really write this down really carefully.

SR: Tell me about your experience in Sweden at the e-recycling plant.

EG: I went to visit a mining company called Boliden, which is up on the northern end of the Baltic about two hours from the Finnish border, and another hour and a half drive from the Artic circle, so you’re way up north. Boliden is a huge mining company. They have copper mines, zinc mines, silver, they actually do lead, as well. And the reason that I went to see them is not just because they do this mining but because they have discovered, like other mining companies, that old circuit boards are an incredibly concentrated and valuable source of copper and precious metals and other metals, as well. Actually the USGS has crunched some numbers and realized that a pile of circuit boards contains a far higher concentration of ore than the same quantity of raw ore would, and it’s obviously a lot less costly from every possible perspective to mine a bunch of old circuit boards than it is to dig it up out of the ground to begin with.

But what Boliden is doing and part of the reason why it was so interesting to go visit them, is that there's a Finnish company there that collects the used electronics and actually oversees the dismantling of the electronics. These are things that are collected all over northern Scandinavia and then transported to this plant which I visited. One interesting thing in Europe is that used electronics aren’t just computers and cell phones and televisions -- things with display screens -- its anything with a plug. So when you go to visit this place there are these huge bins with used appliances of every possible kind - everything from hair dryers to blenders, old stereo equipment and lamps, as well as computer equipment.
They dismantle this stuff and segregate the different materials, and then the metal-bearing circuit boards end up getting chopped up and shredded into little bits, and then they sit out in these open yards and then get shoveled into conveyers and funnel into this enormous smelter along with raw ore. So there is this enormous cauldron, and from one side comes chopped up electronics, and the other side comes raw ore, and then it gets melted down and it looks like every film you’ve ever seen of boiling metal -- it gets poured into these ingots and processed so that the copper and the other metals are separated out. It's one of the only places where it's being done like that. And Scandinavia is one of the first regions that is actually collecting the electronics, so they’re a lot further along in the collection schemes.

SR: That is very interesting, and to some degree isn't happening in the US, too?

EG: HP has set up electronics recycling plants with Noranda – they're a Canadian company, but that’s who they’ve gone into business with and there are several others. But it’s the metals specialists that are driving this because right now – any recycler will tell you -- plastics are the hardest to recycle, For one thing, electronics entering the waste stream are older ones with lots of different kinds of plastics in them and apparently you can’t mingle this stuff and then use it again; and it kind of down cycles. I had a woman who works for Epson says to me, "I can make you flower pots or park benches but I can’t make you another printer cartridge or another computer with recycled plastic." So that’s the kind of thing they’re working on, but right now its the metals that are really valuable, not the plastic.

SR: We spend a lot of time talking about life cycle and disposal and cradle to cradle, but a lot of what I’ve been talking about with designers is the beginning point. I don’t know how much you spend doing on the beginning point because this has more to do with the very end. Where in that process from beginning to end you feel like things could change the most?

EG: I think it has to change at the very, very beginning. One of the problems that I discovered reading about high tech was that all of the waste products and the effluent of the manufacturing process include huge quantities of toxics. And in a way that's a design problem.

You have to figure out how you’re going to make products that never mind are just easier to dismantle and recycle, but also have longer lives, both physically and in terms of the technology; and being able to upgrade them so you don’t have to buy a whole new case every time you need something. And you have to actually make sure that you’re using not brand new virgin materials every time.

I think the trick, since most products out there today were designed without these impacts in mind, is that it's then a sort of retrofitting process. These things weren’t designed to come apart. I’ve had recyclers tell me it can take anywhere from 30 seconds to 15 minutes to perform the initial disassembly. When I visited that recycling plant in Sweden, the whole place was littered -- and is a state of the art place -- but it was littered with little shards of metal and plastic and glass. That just means they’ve had to pry and force this stuff apart.

SR: Someone at Worldchanging just wrote about the pop apart cell phone. Is there anything like this in the works with other elements of electronics?

EG: If you delve down into various manufacturers' "design for the environment" pages, that’s been one of the big things -- reducing the number of fasteners, reducing the number of parts, and it’s not something any of us are going to do as consumers. It just means that you don’t need 6 different screwdrivers and a hammer to take something apart. And the trouble is that the stuff that people are really getting rid of in bulk now is the old stuff that wasn’t designed like this. Presumably, if you force manufacturers to have some responsibility for the end of life and their waste products, there's a huge incentive to change it. If you can just throw it away and forget about it, you won’t be compelled to change it.

SR: With any problem like this -- toxic materials and waste -- there’s the design issue and the manufacturer issue, and neither of those, like you said, is a consumer problem because we can't, as consumers, do anything about it except demand through our purchases. Do you agree?

EG: Change by way of demand through purchases is pretty slow to happen; it’s not like food -- that’s so immediate -- or something really simple like a paper product. This is so complex most people even don’t know what to demand. But there is rising consumer demand, and actually one of the places that consumer demand is having an influence is not so much on individual consumer purchases but institutional purchases. Schools, governments, and health care institutions buy huge numbers of computers and other IT equipment at once, and a lot of times when they buy it they ask for bids. How good a deal is the company going to make them? Increasingly, these companies also realize that the end of life poses liabilities for them not just environmentally but in terms of data. You don’t want your old data lying around in a landfill or on the side of a road somewhere. They’re asking to have takebacks as part of their purchasing agreements and their whole association of state purchasing agents -- I know this is so unglamorous – but state purchasing agents, and people who buy for universities and I think health care organizations are starting to ask for this, and that does really influence what the manufacturers do.

SR: So they want as part of their deal to have the company that sells it to them take it back from them so they don’t have to deal with the disposal.

EG: And that presumably involves some fee, but yeah, its part of the deal. When we’re ready to upgrade or buy new stuff, the seller has to service the end of life.

SR: Do you think that’s because of the hassle of disposing or because there is actually some concern over whether they would cause harm?

EG: People have become aware that it this an environmental hazard, but due to the way the laws work in this country, unless you have a local disposal ban on screens or something, you can throw this stuff in the trash. But if you’re a university and you’re getting rid of a dumpster full of it, that’s going to be hazardous waste. You can’t just dump this somewhere. It's expensive to get a service contract to recycle it because it’s a labor intensive process, so if you can, you include in your purchasing agreement with a large company that they’ll provide recycling as a service -- and it usually involves dealing with the data as well, because that’s become a concern. But as far as what else you can do to demand it, some places have started to put some pressure on local policy makers, but I think a lot of pressure has come from local governments because in this country, it’s local governments who are responsible for solid waste. And again, like large businesses and institutions, they’ve realized that it’s a liability and there has got to be a better way to deal with this.

SR: The other thing someone just wrote about on Worldchanging is the EPEAT program. What is your opinion of that?

EG: I have to say I think the federal government has been really dragging its feet terribly on dealing with all of this, and they keep completing new work groups and study forces. They have not been taking nearly as much leadership on this as they could and they have lots of reasons why they say they’re not. As to how effective what they’ve done thus far is, I just don’t know. I just think they’re moving way, way too slowly on this. They could be providing a lot more leadership.

I did go to an EPA-sponsored electronics summit and they were just kind of the facilitators, they weren’t really taking the leadership. And even if you look at their website, they are just a resource filter; they’re not taking a leading charge on it. I think under the current administration, there has been a lot of pressure put on them by business and private commerce departments, rather than from an environmental perspective. One of the things that the EPA has gotten involved in and is really badly needed is some kind of industry-wide certification program for recyclers. I can’t remember whether that comes under EPEAT heading or not. I don’t think so.

Because right now if you want to choose a recycler, you just have to ask them a lot of questions yourself about where the materials go and what kind of downstream tracking they have and whether they’re exporting it for cheap and unhealthy and unsound recycling. There are a few organizations, including Basel Action Network, that have come up with standards - the BAN one is probably the most comprehensive in terms of downstream tracking and export - but there isn’t anything that is sponsored by the government.

SR: Who do you think is the leader in the world right now for responsibly dealing with the waste and responsibly manufacturing computers?

EG: Well, Europe is way ahead of the US. The US is ridiculously behind. In fact it's kind of astonishing that we're so far behind on this. But I think it would be hard in terms of singling out one computer manufacturer as being an industry leader in this area because the business is so competitive. Wven though not very many people are choosing electronics based on an environmental profile, it’s part of successful international marketing. It's part of being a successful business to have as part of your profile that you’re a good global citizen. Whether it's true or not, or how deep it goes is something else, but that just has to be part of your profile and there has been a huge increase in transparency in the past 10 – 20 years on all of this. It is so competitive that when one large manufacturer moves, it's quite likely that others will follow. European legislation has been enormously influential in pushing the manufacturers. So I think it would be hard to pick out one true leader because they are all actually making constant improvements in design and materials. Where the motives come from are many and varied and it may not matter, but they’re all doing something, and realize that it's going to be good for business to keep making these improvements.

And here's a weird thing: In Europe there are all these eco labels; they all have them, but I just happened to look at Dell. In Europe they were advertising the fact that some of their printers and maybe some keyboards were particularly ergonomically friendly. Of course nobody sticks those kinds of labels on things in the U.S., so I really wondered, is Dell really making a different product that’s ergonomically friendly for Germany and Sweden but not for the US? No. They're the same product, it's just an advertising point. You actually have to dig pretty darn deep on anyone’s website whether its HP or Dell or Apple to find out what they’re doing, but they’re all doing something. When it comes to how any manufacturer-sponsored take back and recycling program works, that stuff varies hugely by geography and because they have to offer it in Europe and in Japan and some other countries, the manufacturers take back these products for no cost. The cost mechanism is somewhere else in the system. But in this country, you usually have to pay, or if you don’t have to pay, it's built in when you purchase a new piece of equipment. But you know consumer demand may make that change, too.

SR: In terms of also the fact that what we can do is upgrade instead of buy new things, do you feel like there are limitations in terms of how willing people are to upgrade?

EG: That seems to be one of the really knotty pieces of the whole problem. What usually prompts you to get a new computer? Well, because the one you have cannot, no matter what you do to it, use the latest software or the latest web technology or something like that. And the makers say, "Sorry, we can’t add anymore memory to it. We cant upgrade this anymore."

I got an email from someone who said they worked for Microsoft and wanted to know how culpable a software company is in promoting this rapid turnover of things, because, he said, hardware without software is like a musical instrument without a musician. And it's true, you can’t run a computer without software. I did not look at this for the book because I realized that software is a whole different issue, but if you don’t have software that is somehow designed in concert with the hardware, you will keep reaching that limit. I don’t actually know enough about how these things are designed and work in terms of the actual technology, but it seems like that is an important piece of the puzzle. I do know that Microsoft is working with some reuse organizations to provide software for refurbished and second use computers so that you’re not stuck having to acquire a new piece of equipment with its own licensed software in order to use it. That helps on one part of the equation, but it doesn’t solve the problem that all of a sudden you're going to have this leap forward.

Or the compatibility issue -- why is it that every time you buy a new computer you can’t use the same printer? And that is a software issue. How do you get around those competitive business models force you to keep tossing and buying more stuff in order to make everything work? I did ask the Intel people that and I thought they were going to laugh me out of the room. I said, "What’s going to happen when you realize you can’t keep doubling your computing capacity every 18 months and selling all this stuff at the same rate you did before?" And they said, "Yeah, that’s the $64,000 question." I thought they would just sort of laugh at me.

SR: The consumer psychology now is that we want the newest, latest thing; I wonder if someone will find a genius way to make the longer lasting product be the desireable choice.

EG: Well actually I was just talking about this the other day. I did an interview with a Chicago radio station and she talked to both me and Giles Slade who wrote a book called Made to Break which is a cultural history of planned obsolescence. I didn’t realize until I read his book that there were actually concerted campaigns right after WWI to make thrift a really bad thing. And we’ve got practically a century’s worth of the whole idea that to be a really successful American you need the newest, latest thing and you’re looked down upon if you’re using last years’ stuff. Technology didn’t make it happen, I think it exacerbated it and then it created a physical monster because of what this stuff is made out of.

SR: The last thing I want to ask is for you to describe for me the "Land Ethic for the Digital Age" that you present at the end of the book.

EG: Well that just came to me during these odd little off moments. I kept thinking about it because almost every time I went to a conference or I talked to people who were discussing end of life, e waste policy, they all kept saying we need to have a "level playing field." And that was code for one company or entity not having an unfair advantage; making sure that everybody was playing by the same rules and having to bear the same financial burden. There were a lot of complicated reasons why that came up, because some older companies have a lot more historic waste to deal with than ones that just popped up on the market. But I kept hearing the phrase ‘level playing field, level playing field’ and all of a sudden it occurred to me that instead of this meaning simply 'no unfair advantages,' it would actually mean that we’re all in this together. And then all of a sudden I remembered Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic, which is about interconnectedness and the fact that there is an evolutionary, biologically-determined need for people and the rest of the world to interact in an ecologically sound way, or you just won't survive.

So it occurred to me that you could translate that into how we're looking at this global technology, because one of the things that so impressed me about everything I learned is how global the business is. Raw materials, the profit, the manufacturing, how its marketed and even what happens to it at the end of life -- each one of those things happens at a global scale. So unlike any other business, all of this stuff is truly international. I kept hearing 'level playing field' and I thought, Well we really are all in this together, because you can’t divorce yourself from waste in China; its blowing in the air that crosses the Pacific and comes over here. And when you buy something, it was made in six different countries across the world with material that came from another dozen different countries. So that’s why it occurred to me that you could take that idea that were all in this together.

I also realized that there is this language of technology. You know, we have all these buttons - we have a command and control button, and I was struck by that arrogance of thinking we’ve divorced ourselves from the natural world and any responsibility for the ecological function by being in cyberspace. I don’t know exactly how you put it into practice, but the other thing that occurred was this: Technology is not going to solve anything on its own, but the fact that we’re using high tech to look at these problems, make people aware of the problems, and implement solutions, is actually going to help solve them, because the minute somebody publishes a report, or a solution becomes available, everyone can see it.

Plus, there is such an international cast of characters working on this issue and I don’t think that would have happened forty or fifty years ago with another industry. We're so American-centric here. I went to a conference in Beijing in 2004, and I think I was one of only four or five Americans there. There were people from literally every country and continent trying to figure out how solve these problems. So that’s when I realized it’s a global land ethic and as I said, I’m not exactly sure how you put it into practice if we could think about the fact that this is a totally global thing, and everyone is taking part in it, we therefore have some responsibility for it. And it does involve health impacts. It's not just that it's going to be ugly where someone else lives, but that by not asking for better designed products with fewer toxins, it's going to affect your kids here and the water you drink here, as well as stuff that happens to people thousands of miles away.

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Great interview Sarah.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 28 Jun 06

I think promoting modularity in our gadgets is a key point here.

Most desktop computers are made to be completely modular. You can replace the motherboards, the RAM, the video cards, the cases, the power supplies, the monitors, etc. etc.

Sadly, laptops, smart phones and so on aren't nearly so modular as desktop computers. In laptops you can upgrade the RAM a bit, upgrade the drives and, in some cases, upgrade the display and maybe swap out a few PCMCIA cards. That's it. If you want to upgrade the CPU or change the video hardware or change the cooling system, you're out of luck.

We need to get better and making fully modularity work in smaller gadgets. The mobile phone Sarah mentioned is a good start in that direction.

Posted by: Pace Arko on 28 Jun 06

I've been to computer junkyards - they look like car junkyards with 20' piles of old computers exposed to the weather in a fenced in dirt lot - it arrives by the tractor-trailer load and people just walk around and "scrounge". I was told whatever was not picked out would eventually be melted down for the gold and other precious metals. But it is obvious we are creating a massive environmental problem.

Posted by: stbalbach on 29 Jun 06



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