The cost of convenience

Author Elizabeth Grossman details the e-waste problem in High Tech Trash
By TIM LEHNERT  |  November 29, 2006

Although the problem of electronic waste is just starting to gain more mainstream attention, Portland, Oregon-based author and journalist Elizabeth Grossman became aware of it six years ago, when she was struck by the amount of toxics being released by Portland’s high-tech industry. The realization prompted her to write the recently published High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics and Human Health (Island Press, 2006; www.hightechtrash.com).

She spoke with me by telephone from her Portland home.

What was the spark for High Tech Trash?
The Willamette River, which is a few minutes from my front door, runs through the city of Portland. In 2000, I was researching point-source pollution — toxics released directly into the Willamette — and learned that the high-tech industry, including silicon-wafer manufacturers and chipmakers, were contributing the majority of local point-source pollution. I was astonished, because it had never occurred to me that high-tech, which seems to embody the move away from natural resource exploitation, smoke stacks, and so on, was an important source of industrial waste locally.

Which is the greater problem, the resources necessary to produce a computer, or the scope of the disposal problem?
I think they are linked. Ninety percent of our used electronics are simply disposed of in landfills, incinerators, or left to pile up somewhere. People in the copper and gold industries told me that both metals are virtually 100 percent recyclable and could in theory be reused an infinite number of times. I did some calculations based on industry and US Geological Survey figures and found there are billions of pounds of copper in existing computer equipment, 90 percent of which is being thrown away. That’s incredible.

Has awareness changed since you started looking at the problem of e-waste?
Absolutely. In 2001, you almost never read a newspaper article about this. Now there’s something almost every day. Public awareness is increasing exponentially. Still, the general public has almost no idea what to do with an old computer. I’d be doing really well if I had a nickel for every time someone’s asked me what they should do with their old equipment.

Does the adage “think globally, act locally” apply to e-waste?
Sure. Municipalities and states are realizing that junked electronics are a huge liability. Solid waste is regulated locally, and states like Maine have concluded that there’s got to be a better way of dealing with old computers than sticking them in a landfill. At the same time, I was really struck in researching the book by the complete global reach of every aspect of the high-tech business. When you look at where the raw materials come from, where they are processed, where the components get made, where the finished products are produced, and where they are marketed and finally disposed of, you see a truly global industry that implicates just about every nation on earth, rich and poor.

  Topics: News Features , Tim Lehnert, Elizabeth Grossman, U.S. Geological Survey
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