Tag Archives: Environment

We Used to Dump E-Trash on the Asians. Now We Dump it on Americans.

Four years ago we issued this warning about the dumping of used e-books and other computer devices. At last the issue is receiving some front page attention (see the New York Times‘s story Unwanted Electronic Gear Rising in Toxic Piles).

The only difference between then and now is that the E-Trash isn’t just being dumped on Asia’s poor. It’s now being dumped on America’s.

Below is the original posting.

Richard Curtis

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When the next generation of laptops, tablets and e-readers arrives, what’s going to happen to the devices you replace?

If what’s happening in Europe is any guideline, it will end up in a toxic e-waste landfill in Asia and Africa where the destitute, many of them children, will scavenge it for scrap. These scavengers incur horrifying and often fatal skin, lung, intestinal and reproductive organ ailments from the plastics, metals and gases that go into discarded cell phones, televisions, computers, keyboards, monitors,cables and similar e-scrap. Elizabeth Rosenthal, covering the story for the New York Times, tells us that “Rotterdam, the busiest port in Europe, has unwittingly become Europe’s main external garbage chute, a gateway for trash bound for places like China, Indonesia, India and Africa.

“There, electronic waste and construction debris containing toxic chemicals are often dismantled by children at great cost to their health. Other garbage that is supposed to be recycled according to European law may be simply burned or left to rot, polluting air and water and releasing the heat-trapping gases linked to global warming.”

Jessika Toothman, blogging on HowStuffWorks, describes how “A whole bouquet of heavy metals, semimetals and other chemical compounds lurk inside your seemingly innocent laptop or TV. E-waste dangers stem from ingredients such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, copper, beryllium, barium, chromium, nickel, zinc, silver and gold.” In fact if you want to see what this “bouquet” of poisons is doing to your fellow man, woman and child, you can view this sickening video of a Chinese e-trash village.

One device not mentioned in Toothman’s list of e-waste is e-book readers. The obvious reason is that we are still in the first generation of e-book devices (or second if you count progenitors like the Rocket Book) and there haven’t been enough readers manufactured to make them a formidable source of trash like cell phones and TVs. But when the next generation of e-book readers floods us with Kindle and Sony rivals – better, cheaper, faster, more colorful, loaded with special features and options – will we simply add them to the tons of lethal junk earmarked for miserable dumps in China, Indonesia or Africa?

Because it is still young, the e-book industry has an unprecedented opportunity to exercise its social responsibility, as we recently pointed out.Here is a three-point program to make sure the e-books business remains green.

  • First, manufacturers must be compelled to disclose the chemical components of the e-book devices they produce so that we can evaluate environmental hazards.
  • Second, Amazon, Sony, Plastic logic, Philips and other developers must develop programs for either returning their devices for safe (and monitored) disassembly and recycling or for donation to students, armed services personnel and other charitable recipients.
  • And third, The cost of recycling and safely disassembling e-books must be built into the price structure of e-books.

Right now the hidden cost of computers and other electronic devices is human suffering. It is unacceptable for the e-book industry to boast about environmental advantages while secretly sticking the helpless poor with the bill or contributing to the poisoning of the world’s water and air. If safety measures and sensible recycling add $25 or $50 to the price of their devices, that is an acceptable tradeoff. Because it would be assessed equally on all manufacturers, none would have a competitive advantage over its rivals.

We expect the e-book industry to do the right thing.

Richard Curtis

Every Blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers and magazines. This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by the New York Times.

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Time for More Transparency for Those Glossy Screens

They say you shouldn’t look to closely at how laws and sausages are made. To that short list we have to add many modern conveniences and appliances. Among these are tablets and e-book readers. Evidence is mounting that beneath their glossy screens are disturbing tales of labor abuse, exploitation of the poor, and dumping of toxic waste on helpless communities far from our shores. People are getting hurt and sick and some of them are dying  just so that we can read conveniently on a digital device. “We’re all so dazzled by our new digital toys.” we wrote last fall, “that we’d rather not think about these tragedies.”

A number of recent exposés have penetrated the slick surface of electronic appliances and the revelations are pretty sickening. The New York Times‘s David Barboza reported on environmental abuses perpetrated by e-book and tablet manufacturers, and in particular Apple.

We have cited what happens to your Kindle, Nook, or iPad when the next generation of e-readers replaced them. “If what’s happening in Europe is any guideline,” we wrote “it will end up in a toxic e-waste landfill in Asia and Africa where the destitute, many of them children, will scavenge it for scrap. These scavengers incur horrifying and often fatal skin, lung, intestinal and reproductive organ ailments from the plastics, metals and gases that go into discarded cell phones, televisions, computers, keyboards, monitors, cables and similar e-scrap.” (See Getting Rid of E-Trash? Dump it on Asia’s Poor)

Just as we think more greenly about energy, it’s time to Think Green about our e-books.  Under pressure from investigative journalists, the secretive Apple corporation has for the first time made available its records concerning its suppliers, and the revelations confirm concerns about the company’s labor practices.  Apple audits, as Nick Winfield and Charles Duhigg reported in the New York Times, “revealed that 93 supplier facilities had records indicating that over half of workers exceeded a 60-hour weekly working limit. Apple said 108 facilities did not pay proper overtime as required by law. In 15 facilities, Apple found foreign contract workers who had paid excessive recruitment fees to labor agencies.And though Apple said it mandated changes at those suppliers, and some showed improvements, in aggregate, many types of lapses remained at general levels that have persisted for years.”

Though this was a good start, labor industry critics didn’t feel Apple’s “supplier responsibility progress report” went far enough, as some of the suppliers,  particularly subcontractors, were not easy to trace, and inadequate measures had been taken to regulate the either contractors or subcontractors. “In the last two years at companies supplying services to Apple, “the Times reporters state, “137 employees were seriously injured after cleaning iPad screens with n-hexane, a toxic chemical that can cause nerve damage and paralysis; numerous workers have committed suicide, or fallen or jumped from buildings in a manner suggesting suicide attempts; and in two separate explosions caused by dust from polishing iPad cases, four were killed and 77 injured.”

To its credit, Apple conducted many more audits in 2011 than previously, resulting in fewer violations, and joined the Fair Labor Association in an initiative to improve conditions for its workers.

Though Apple has taken the brunt of criticism, it is by no means the only manufacturer whose labor practices and environmental controls need to be examined. If similar problems are discovered at the factories where Kindles, Nooks, Sonys and other reading and computing devices are manufactured or where superannuated models are disposed of, the industry must take care of them and include the costs in their price structures even if it means that we have to pay more for our e-book readers.

Read Apple Lists Its Suppliers for 1st Time by Nick Winfield and Charles Duhigg.

Richard Curtis

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I Don’t Care if My Kindle Can’t Bring Down a 747, I’m Turning It Off Anyway

Having been asked one time too many to turn his e-reader off before takeoff or landing, Nick Bilton of the New York Times took a Kindle to an independent testing laboratory and asked them to measure the actual electrical emission.

“When EMT Labs put an Amazon Kindle through a number of tests,” reports Bilton, “the company consistently found that this e-reader emitted less than 30 microvolts per meter when in use. That’s only 0.00003 of a volt.”

“The power coming off a Kindle is completely minuscule and can’t do anything to interfere with a plane,” the lab’s chief executive told him. “It’s so low that it just isn’t sending out any real interference.”

Yes, but what if many passengers are using their Kindle at the same time? “Five Kindles will not put off five times the energy that one Kindle would,” explained the lab’s testing manager.

So? What does your plane’s captain know that the managers of a prestigious testing laboratory don’t know?  He knows one thing: if you don’t turn your goddam Kindle off he’ll have you removed from the flight, and the F. A. A. will back him when you’re deposited kicking and screaming in the terminal whence you boarded.

For someone looking forward to landing in Paris the next morning, that’s a pretty compelling argument, and it trumps your miserable 0.00003 of a volt.

Disruptions: Norelco on Takeoff? Fine. Kindle? No.

Richard Curtis

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Recycle Your E-Appliances, But Where Will They End Up?

Nothing to do on a rainy day?  Try walking around your home and counting electronic appliances. Bring all your fingers and toes: a public policy organization called Demos says you’ll find about 25. Collectively, Americans own 3 billion.

In all likelihood you’ll get rid of some of them in the next year or two.  You’ll be joining your fellow Americans disposing of 400 million annually.  About 14% of them will be recycled.  What will happen to the rest of them?

Nothing good.

Jessika Toothman, blogging on HowStuffWorks, describes how “A whole bouquet of heavy metals, semimetals and other chemical compounds lurk inside your seemingly innocent laptop or TV. E-waste dangers stem from ingredients such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, copper, beryllium, barium, chromium, nickel, zinc, silver and gold.” Countless tons of it ends up being shipped to Asia and dumped outside towns where the poor scavenge and sell these deadly “bouquets” for pennies, incurring crippling and often fatal afflictions by doing so. You can read about it in Getting Rid of E-Trash?  Dump It on Asia’s Poor.

Some of that e-trash will be recycled e-readers.  When you replace v. 1 or v. 2 of your reading device with the latest upgrade, what will you do with the one you’re retiring?  It’s not too early to start thinking about where it ends up. The same stew of nasty elements found in computers and televisions can be found in so-called “green” e-book readers. See Greeners Speak Up About Toxic E-Books.

Little by little, however, things are starting to turn around.

Mickey Meece, writing about recycling in the New York Times, tells us that public consciousness is growing about recycling. Perhaps as importantly, the ways and means to do it safely and profitably have increased dramatically.  The consumer electronics industry recycled 300 million pounds last year, up from 200 million in 2009, and “About two dozen states have passed laws mandating the recycling of electronic waste,”Meece writes. “There are many outlets for consumers to recycle, donate or trade-in goods. The Environmental Protection Agency has a list, and the electronics association provides links with a ZIP code search feature to find corporate recycling programs and programs for donating used goods to charitable organizations. Earth911 offers an iPhone app.”

Typical of a green-minded appliance retailer is Best Buy, which Meece says will “will also take up to two larger items a day at customer service, including televisions and monitors up to 32 inches, computer C.P.U.’s, VCRs/DVD players, phones, remotes and keyboards. The company charges a $10 recycling fee for items with screens, but gives customers a $10 store gift card immediately…. For its fiscal year ending March 1, Best Buy anticipates recycling 80 million pounds of goods, up from 70 million pounds the previous year, said Kelly Groehler, a spokeswoman. About 75 to 80 percent of that is computers and monitors.”

Read about it in Giving Those Old Gadgets a Proper Green Burial.

Richard Curtis

Every Blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers and magazines. This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by the New York Times.

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Greeners Speak Up About Toxic E-Books

Raz Godelnik blogging on the website of the Independent Book Publishers Association asks Is E-Reading Really Greener? We’ve been asking the same question for far too long and it’s good to hear voices other than our own talking about it.

Godelnik’s is an important one.  He’s co-founder and CEO of Eco-Libris, a company working with publishers, authors, bookstores, and book lovers worldwide to promote green practices in our industry.

To determine which format – print or digital – has a smaller carbon footprint, the IBPA applied life cycle analysis “which evaluates the ecological impact of any product, at every stage of its existence—in this case, from cutting down trees for paper to the day when the iPad and the Kindle will end their lives,” writes Godelnik.

One test was revealing, demonstrating “that you need to replace a purchase of at least 100 physical books with 100 books on your e-book (or at least the iPad, the device used for the test) to make the device “a greener option from a carbon footprint standpoint.”

However, as one team of researcher assets, “the carbon footprint is just one part of the comparison. With respect to fossil fuels, water use, and mineral consumption, one e-reader has as much impact as 40–50 print-on-paper books. And with respect to human health consequences, they claim the figure is somewhere between 50 and 100 books.”

There’s one more important criterion to bear in mind as we consider our future choices:  “Someone who (like most Americans) reads only six to seven books a year and switches to a newer e-reader version within three to four years may not be going green.” What happens to your discarded e-reader is something you probably don’t want to know, but you really need to look in faces like that of the child in our picture sitting in a park – a park strewn with all the horrors of civilization.  (See Getting Rid of E-Trash? Dump It on Asia’s Poor and Which Is Greener, E or P? Count to Ten Before Answering)

Read Is E-Reading Really Greener?. And if you’d like to learn – and do – more, visit ecolibris.net.

Richard Curtis

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Which is Greener, E or P? Count to Ten Before Answering

Last September we raised a question about e-books that nobody else seemed to be asking: when comparing the impact of supposedly “green” e-books to tree-killing paper books, why isn’t anybody talking about the health and environmental price? (See Getting Rid of E-Trash? Dump it on Asia’s Poor.)

At last someone has picked up that ball.  Daniel Goleman, author of Ecological Intelligence, and Gregory Norris, who is developing a life-cycle assessment software system, have evaluated the comparable impact of e-readers to printed books in an op-ed article in the New York Times. “To find the answer,” they write, “we turned to life-cycle assessment, which evaluates the ecological impact of any product, at every stage of its existence, from the first tree cut down for paper to the day that hardcover decomposes in the dump. With this method, we can determine the greenest way to read.”

It may come as a surprise to digital evangelists that their tree-saving e-gadgets are doing more harm than the traditional reading device known as the book. By some criteria, far more harm.

Goleman and Norris used 6 factors to assess the comparable impacts and their conclusions can be summarized as follows:

  • Materials “One e-reader requires the extraction of 33 pounds of minerals…[and requires] 79 gallons of water. A book made with recycled paper consumes about two-thirds of a pound of minerals…[and] just 2 gallons of water.”
  • Manufacture An e-reader consumes 100 kilowatt hours of fossil fuels that throw off 66 pounds of carbon dioxide, compared to 2 kwh and less than 1 pound of greenhouse gases.
  • Health “The adverse health impacts from making one e-reader are estimated to be 70 times greater than those from making a single book.”
  • Transportation “You’d need to drive to a store 300 miles away to create the equivalent in toxic impacts on health of making one e-reader — but you might do that and more if you drive to the mall every time you buy a new book.”
  • Reading “If you like to read a book in bed at night for an hour or two, the light bulb will use more energy than it takes to charge an e-reader, which has a highly energy-efficient screen. But if you read in daylight, the advantage tips to a book.”
  • Disposal For very different reasons e-readers and printed books end up tied in this category.

The final (and shocking) tally? “With respect to fossil fuels, water use and mineral consumption, the impact of one e-reader payback equals roughly 40 to 50 books. When it comes to global warming, though, it’s 100 books; with human health consequences, it’s somewhere in between.”

For details read How Green Is My iPad?

Richard Curtis

Every Blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers and magazines. This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by the New York Times.

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What E-Scavengers Are Looking For When They Scavenge Your Computer

Yesterday we wrote about toxic e-waste being dumped into landfills around poor communities in Asia and Africa where scavengers, including children, earn a pittance reclaiming and selling metals and other materials, materials loaded with chemicals that poison the air, water, land – and people.

But there is more in that discarded hardware than metal, plastic and wire. There is also information. In 2003 two MIT graduate students discovered credit card and Social Security numbers, medical records and other confidential information in computers that had been thrown away. “Even those with ‘erased’ disk drives may harbor confidential information,” their report revealed. The MIT News article goes on to say,

“Scavenging through the data inadvertently left on 158 used disk drives, the students at MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science found more than 5,000 credit card numbers, detailed personal and corporate financial records, numerous medical records, gigabytes of personal email and pornography….Of the disk drives acquired, 129 were functional. Of these, Garfinkel and Shelat found 28 disk drives in which little or no attempt had been made to erase any information. One of these drives, Shelat says, had apparently come from an automatic teller machine in Illinois and contained a year’s worth of financial transactions.”

If you project the team’s findings to the tens of millions of computers tossed out every year (“More than 150 million disk drives were retired from primary service in 2002,” the report says) well, you don’t have to be an MIT graduate student to figure out just how big the problem is. Read
MIT researchers uncover mountains of private data on discarded computers
and learn why even with care it’s far harder to sanitize a computer than you think.

Though the report was written in 2003, there is no evidence whatsoever that users are any more conscientious today than they were six years ago. Meanwhile, the river of e-junk flows ever wider and faster, and, to the toxicity of the metals and poisons in it, you can add countless gigabytes of unsecured information and precious data that are falling into the hands of criminals.

Want to prevent your identity from being stolen? Don’t leave it on the sidewalk for the trash haulers to collect.

RC

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Getting Rid of E-Trash? Dump it on Asia’s Poor

On a recent Chris Matthews Show the host asked his guests to “Tell me something I don’t know.” Rick Stengel, managing editor for Time Magazine, said, “By the end of the year you’re going to see a plethora of e-readers – of post-Kindle devices – four color.”

For those of you who have been keeping up with e-books Stengel didn’t tell us anything we don’t know. But here’s something that nobody knows: when the next generation of e-readers arrives, what’s going to happen to the Kindle or Sony E-Reader you replace?

If what’s happening in Europe is any guideline, it will end up in a toxic e-waste landfill in Asia and Africa where the destitute, many of them children, will scavenge it for scrap. These scavengers incur horrifying and often fatal skin, lung, intestinal and reproductive organ ailments from the plastics, metals and gases that go into discarded cell phones, televisions, computers, keyboards, monitors,cables and similar e-scrap. Elizabeth Rosenthal, covering the story for the New York Times, tells us that “Rotterdam, the busiest port in Europe, has unwittingly become Europe’s main external garbage chute, a gateway for trash bound for places like China, Indonesia, India and Africa.

“There, electronic waste and construction debris containing toxic chemicals are often dismantled by children at great cost to their health. Other garbage that is supposed to be recycled according to European law may be simply burned or left to rot, polluting air and water and releasing the heat-trapping gases linked to global warming.”

Jessika Toothman, blogging on HowStuffWorks, describes how “A whole bouquet of heavy metals, semimetals and other chemical compounds lurk inside your seemingly innocent laptop or TV. E-waste dangers stem from ingredients such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, copper, beryllium, barium, chromium, nickel, zinc, silver and gold.” In fact if you want to see what this “bouquet” of poisons is doing to your fellow man, woman and child, you can view this sickening video of a Chinese e-trash village.

One device not mentioned in Toothman’s list of e-waste is e-book readers. The obvious reason is that we are still in the first generation of e-book devices (or second if you count progenitors like the Rocket Book) and there haven’t been enough readers manufactured to make them a formidable source of trash like cell phones and TVs. But when the next generation of e-book readers floods us with Kindle and Sony rivals – better, cheaper, faster, more colorful, loaded with special features and options – will we simply add them to the tons of lethal junk earmarked for miserable dumps in China, Indonesia or Africa?

Because it is still young, the e-book industry has an unprecedented opportunity to exercise its social responsibility, as we recently pointed out. Here is a three-point program to make sure the e-books business remains green.

  • First, manufacturers must be compelled to disclose the chemical components of the e-book devices they produce so that we can evaluate environmental hazards.
  • Second, Amazon, Sony, Plastic logic, Philips and other developers must develop programs for either returning their devices for safe (and monitored) disassembly and recycling or for donation to students, armed services personnel and other charitable recipients.
  • And third, The cost of recycling and safely disassembling e-books must be built into the price structure of e-books.

Right now the hidden cost of computers and other electronic devices is human suffering. It is unacceptable for the e-book industry to boast about environmental advantages while secretly sticking the helpless poor with the bill or contributing to the poisoning of the world’s water and air. If safety measures and sensible recycling add $25 or $50 to the price of their devices, that is an acceptable tradeoff. Because it would be assessed equally on all manufacturers, none would have a competitive advantage over its rivals.

We expect the e-book industry to do the right thing.

Richard Curtis

Every Blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers and magazines. This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by the New York Times.

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How Green Was My E-Book?

Book lovers and tree huggers don’t necessarily mix. The carbon footprint created by the average printed book is sasquatchian in size compared to that made by an electronic book reader – about 23 to 1, according to a recent study. “E-readers could have a major impact on improving the sustainability and environmental impact on the publishing industry, one of the world’s most polluting sectors,” states Cleantech, issuer of the 2008 study reported in the New York Times. “In 2008, the U.S. book and newspaper industries combined resulted in the harvesting of 125 million trees, not to mention wastewater that was produced or its massive carbon footprint.”

And let’s not forget the fossil fuel required to ship books from printer to warehouse to bookstore – and, for somewhere between a quarter and a third of them (the current return rate for the book industry), shipping returned stock back to warehouse and thence to pulpers or incinerators.

Does that mean e-readers are emerald green? Environmental groups beg to differ. “Consumer electronics, after all, are notorious for containing a variety of toxic materials among their circuitry,” say the Times‘s Joe Hutso. Speaking out forthrightly about the problem is Greenpeace. In a recent website posting it raised the alarm that there has been “a dangerous explosion in electronic scrap (e-waste) containing toxic chemicals and heavy metals that cannot be disposed of or recycled safely.” In countries where e-junk is dumped, “workers at scrap yards, some of whom are children, are exposed to a cocktail of toxic chemicals and poisons.

The rate at which these mountains of obsolete electronic products are growing will reach crisis proportions unless electronics corporations that profit from making and selling these devices face up to their responsibilities. It is possible to make clean, durable products that can be upgraded, recycled, or disposed of safely and don’t end up as hazardous waste in someone’s backyard.

Amazon, Sony and other manufacturers are tight-lipped about the components of their reading devices that might be contributing to this nasty stew. But Greenpeace’s assessment reminds us that the damage done by discarded e-readers could offset the good they do during their useful life. For more on that subject, read The E-Waste Problem.

Which reminds us: science fiction author M. M. Buckner brings e-waste terrifyingly to life in a brilliant environmental thriller, Watermind. A young scientist discovers that castoff electronic chips and computers have not only begun to communicate with one another in pulses, but to combine with algae and other biota to form an intelligent entity. And it’s growing very large very fast. Check it out.

Richard Curtis

Every Blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers and magazines. This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by the New York Times.

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