High-tech Goes Green

Work-related cancers and toxic emissions have eroded the high-tech industry's clean reputation. New European Union rules banning heavy metals and requiring manufacturers to take back discarded computers could set a new global standard

Its long been known, but little discussed in polite high-tech circles, that information-age technology is not the clean industry it claims to be.  Personal computers, for example, are astonishingly resource-intensive to produce.  Manufacturing a single PC can generate 139 pounds of waste and involves a witch's brew of chemicals linked to high rates of cancer and birth defects among workers and communities.

Courtesy of Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition

The solution to the high-tech toxics trap is coming not from the US, where companies sell the most computers, but from Europe. The European Union has begun requiring manufacturers to take responsibility for their electronic products from cradle to grave. By shifting the costs of disposal from municipal governments to manufacturers, this policy creates an incentive for high-tech producers to design products that are easier to recycle and use fewer toxic ingredients. It's an approach that could have global benefits: Japanese companies are already following the EU model, and some US companies are also getting on board in order to access European markets.

The three crises
What is it that got the European Union's attention? Electronic waste (e-waste)—such as obsolete and discarded computers, monitors, printers, cell phones, and televisions—is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the developed world, thanks to the industry's philosophy of “design for immediate obsolescence” and an anemic electronics-recycling infrastructure. An estimated 300 to 500 million computers will descend on landfills or incinerators by 2007 in the US alone. Three-quarters of all computers ever sold in this country await disposal in garages and storage facilities because their owners don't know what to do with them. There are health, fiscal, and human rights implications to this disposal crisis.

Public health.If the full force of the high-tech revolution hits the landfill, its health risks will leave no community untouched. E-waste accounts for 5 percent of all solid waste in America but approximately 40 percent of the lead, 70 percent of the heavy metals, and a significant portion of the organic chemical pollutants in America's dumps. This e-waste can leach into the ground, as it did in the Silicon Valley. It was the widespread contamination of the valley's aquifers in the early 1980s that initially punctured the high-tech industry's clean image. Currently, there are more EPA Superfund clean-up sites in this valley than anywhere else in the US. The threat of soil and drinking water contamination will grow as e-waste surges into the waste stream worldwide.

Fiscal burdens.Local governments and taxpayers now pick up the tab for the disposal of e-waste. The state of California, for example, faces an estimated $1 billion in e-waste disposal costs over the next few years.

Human rights. Approximately 80 percent of e-waste now being sent to American recyclers is exported to Asia. It is ten times cheaper to ship e-waste to China, Pakistan, India and elsewhere because of cheap labor and weak environmental regulations. The recent report, Exporting Harm: The Toxic Trashing of Asia, by the Basel Action Network and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, documented rivers choked with old circuit boards, poisoned groundwater, dangerous open burnings of dioxin-generating electronics plastics, and increases in childhood leukemia. (See www.svtc.orgfor the full report.)

Catching the code
The health and environmental toll of the electronics industry can be viewed as a problem of “code.” Legal scholar Lawrence Lessig coined this term to explain how technology's impact on society is regulated not just by law and policy, but most powerfully by the design of software and hardware. This code can encourage certain behaviors and preclude or create barriers to others.

Historically, the hardware and software industries have striven against design for reuse and recycling. Instead of producing computers with safe or cost-efficient upgrading, disassembly, or materials reclamation, PC manufacturers continually add more power and software features than most of us need, resulting in machines that need to be replaced every two or three years. As Intel's Andrew Grove stated in a moment of candor: “We eat our own children, and we do it faster and faster ... That's how we keep our lead.”

The software industry has raised other barriers to reuse. For instance, a computer donated to charity requires a new operating system and office suite before anyone can make legal use of it. Microsoft won't let you recycle your software licenses and, regrettably, the cost of software is typically much more than an old computer is worth.

Legal and regulatory code also contributes to the problem. In the US, local governments are responsible for handling electronic waste, yet they have little power to influence industry to reduce its flow. Asian villagers—who are among the least likely people to own a computer—bear the greatest health risks of the information age from handling toxic material and being exposed to poisoned soil and groundwater. This waste trade is possible because the US is the only developed nation that has not ratified the 1989 Basel Convention banning hazardous waste exports from developed to developing countries. It is not-—as some industry voices claim—that law is too slow to keep up with technology. Law has actively abetted and subsidized wasteful design and unsafe disposal.

The European solution
The European Union is way ahead of the US in recognizing the hazards and moving towards a solution. The first European Union directive on e-waste, adopted last year, requires producers to take responsibility for the entire life cycle of their products. By 2005, companies will either have to take back products directly from consumers or fund independent collectors to do so. Waste that was generated prior to the enactment date will be the responsibility of all existing companies, in proportion to their market share. Future waste is to be the individual responsibility of each company, thereby creating an incentive to redesign products for easier and safer recycling and disposal. No e-waste will be allowed in municipal waste streams. The public will be able to return e-waste without charge.

The second directive phases out the use of key toxic materials by 2006, including lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, and the brominated flame retardants PBDE and PBB.

The EU's approach, known as “extended producer responsibility” (EPR) in policy circles, creates incentives for manufacturers to reduce the environmental impacts of high-tech products throughout their life cycle. Instead of issuing regulation for an industry in constant flux, the EU has set clear goals for electronics collection and recycling and has given the industry flexibility in how it meets them. Rather than trying to make law catch up with technology, the EU is making the technologists catch up with the code.

Predictably, most US-based electronics manufacturers, their trade associations, and the US Trade Representative decried the EU directives as trade barriers, arguing that US companies that wish to export products to Europe should not be required to abide by laws stricter than those in their home countries. But because environmental standards for electronics will be higher in Europe, and because Japanese companies are following suit, US manufacturers may find it makes less and less sense for them to produce a dirtier version of their products for the US market.

How will the US proceed?
Because the US high-tech industry and its friends in Washington represent the biggest obstacles to the globalization of take-back laws, a broad coalition of environmental, health, labor, and recycling groups and local governments has formed the Computer Take Back Campaign to support EU-style legislation in the US. Hundreds of organizations and local governments in the US have already endorsed the campaign's platform (see www.svtc.org/cleancc/e_platform.htm).

The campaign advocates that the US adopt standards for electronics manufacturers at least as stringent as those adopted by the EU: hazardous materials would be phased out, and all electronics would be designed for reuse and recycling. The coalition proposes that legal and financial responsibility for e-waste be shifted back to producers and away from the overburdened public sector. Manufacturers would also be required to disclose the hazardous contents of the products they buy and their plan for disposing of them, and to establish verifiable environmental and labor standards governing the disposal or recycling of their products. These policies not only give producers an economic incentive to redesign electronics for safe and easy recycling, but also create an impetus to develop markets for reused materials that create safe jobs at living wages.

The campaign has sparked a legislative groundswell. In the past year alone, 20 states have introduced legislation to address e-waste. California legislators passed the first two bills in the country, which would have established a $10 fee on new TVs and computer monitors to fund the recycling of e-waste. Although Governor Gray Davis vetoed the bills, he promised to sign a law modeled on the European approach in 2003. High-tech companies initially fought take-back laws in California, but Hewlett-Packard and Apple (the two largest personal computer manufacturers in California) have now broken rank by stating they would support their state's efforts.

Going global
The European approach is more than a minor “software patch” on a fundamentally flawed program. By establishing corporate responsibility for products at the end of their useful lives, this strategy could have wide-ranging effects on the information technology industry. The EU approach spreads environmental benefits globally rather than shifting pollution to developing nations.

The benefits of Extended Producer Responsibility, coupled with bans on exporting waste, open the door to many positive possibilities. Leasing may become more attractive to individual consumers. Production plants could move closer to sources of recycled content, either slowing the flow of manufacturing out of the developed world or creating new recycling infrastructure near existing assembly plants worldwide.

If we can adopt the EU's code in the US, we can do a bit of reverse engineering on globalization. The architecture of global trade is programmed to exert downward pressure on environmental and labor safeguards everywhere. But it also impels companies to sell in major international markets. By raising standards for companies operating in Europe, the EU is helping to rewrite code worldwide. By downloading Europe's program to the US, we can finally begin to clean up the “clean industry” around the globe.

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