As I admitted a couple of weeks ago, I tend to obsess about where food comes from, but behave as if the electronic gadgets upon which I rely appear fully formed from heaven — and disappear into the ether when I’m done with them.
But the digital economy, in which I earn my keep, has a material basis just as surely as the food economy does. It took a vast global production network to place the laptop I’m typing this on in front of me; and when I’m done with it, it will have to be disposed of somehow and, more importantly, somewhere. I’ve been wrestling with what it means to participate in this shady economy.
As if on cue, über-communicator Annie Leonard, celebrated creator of the Story of Stuff video, has come out with a new video called Story of Electronics. Everyone who owns a tech gadget — this means you — will benefit from spending eight minutes with Annie and her non-preachy and vivid story-telling style:
I love Annie’s crusade against the concept of tech gear that’s “designed for the dump.” She presents a vision of a world in which tech gadgets are designed to be modular and easily upgradable — not disposable and out-of-date within months after purchase. To that vision, I would add a strong emphasis on the well-being of the workers in the production chain, who are currently being exploited ruthlessly, from what I can tell (see my previous post on this topic.) I don’t want to support such conditions in gadget mills any more than I want to support them in tomato fields.
How far are we from a world of ecologically sane and socially just tech gadget-making? At Leonard’s urging, I checked out the Electronic Takeback Coalition’s scorecard of major brands’ take-back programs. The report measures what I consider to be the bare minimum: a company’s willingness to deal squarely with its products after they’ve been discarded. It says nothing about workers’ treatment, pollution generated during production, or anything else.
The results seem dismal to me. No company gets an “A.” Only three — Dell, Asus, and Samsung — rate a “B.” Apple, maker of the gadgets that I prefer, gets a “C+“. What holds it back from a higher score are lack of transparency and failure to use only recycling services that ensure toxic waste isn’t exported to foreign countries. Sigh.
Another measure of the dismal state of recycling e-waste came in October, when the Department of Justice’s Inspector General issued a stunning report showing that an e-cycling program run in federal prisons had for years “routinely exposed inmates to toxic heavy metals and exported hazardous wastes to developing countries.” Nice one!
Moreover, from what I can tell, the business models of all the big-name gadget makers are all still geared to moving as many units as possible, not creating durable hardware. But if you’ve got a broken gadget, a victim of planned obsolescence, you don’t have to just chuck it, Ask Umbra points out: many can be fixed, with a little patience and confidence.