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The Story of Electronics

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This is a story about a world obsessed with stuff. It's a story about a system in crisis. We're trashing the planet. We're trashing each other, and we're not even having fun. The good thing is that when we start to understand the system, we start to see lots of places to step in and turn these problems into solutions. The Story of Electronics: Why designed for the dump is toxic for people and the planet. The other day, I couldn't find my computer charger. My computer is my lifeline to my work, my friends, my music. So I looked everywhere—even in that drawer where 'this' lives. I know you have one too, a tangle of old chargers, the sad remains of electronics past. How did I end up with so many of these things? It's not like I'm always after the latest gadget. My old device is broke or became so obsolete I couldn't use them anymore. And not one of these old chargers fits my computer. Aagh! This isn't just bad luck. It's bad design. I call it "designed for the dump." "Designed for the dump" sounds crazy, right? But when you're trying to sell lots of stuff, it makes perfect sense. It's a key strategy of the companies that make our electronics. In fact it's a key part of our whole unsustainable materials economy. "Designed for the dump" means making stuff to be thrown away quickly. Today's electronics are hard to upgrade, easy to break, and impractical to repair. My DVD player broke, and I took it to a shop to get fixed. The repair guy wanted $50 just to look at it. A new one at Target costs 39 bucks. In the 1960s, Gordon Moore, the giant brain and semiconductor pioneer, predicted that electronics designers could double processor speed every 18 months. So far he's been right. This is called Moore's Law. But somehow the bosses of these genius designers got it all twisted up. They seem to think that Moore's Law means that every 18 months, we have to throw out all our old electronics and buy more. Problem is, the 18 months that we use these things are just a blip in their entire life-cycle. And that's where these dump designers aren't just causing a pain in our wallets, they're causing a global toxic emergency. You see, electronics start where most stuff starts, in mines and factories. Many of our gadgets are made from a thousand different materials shipped from around the world to assembly plants. There, workers turn them into products, using loads of toxic chemicals, like PVC, mercury, solvents, and flame retardants. Today, this usually happens in far-off places that are hard to monitor. But it used to happen near my home, in Silicon Valley, which, thanks to the electronics industry, is one of the most poisoned communities in the US. IBM's own data revealed that its workers making computer chips had 40 percent more miscarriages and were significantly more likely to die from blood, brain, and kidney cancer. The same thing is starting to happen all around the world. It turns out the high-tech industry isn't as clean as its image. So, after its toxic trip around the globe, it lands in my hands. I love it for a year or so, and then it starts drifting further from its place of honor on my desk or in my pocket. Maybe it spends a little time in my garage before being tossed out And that brings us to disposal, which we think of as the end of its life. But really it's just moved on to become part of the mountains of e-waste we make every year. Remember how these devices were packed with toxic chemicals? Well, there's a simple rule of production: toxics in, toxics out. Computers, cell phones, TVs, all this stuff, is just waiting to release all their toxics when we throw them away. Some of them are slowly releasing this stuff even while we're using them. You know those fat, old TVs that people are chucking for high-def flat screens? They each have about 5 pounds of lead in them. Lead! As in lead poisoning! So, almost all of this e-waste either goes from my garage to a landfill or it gets shipped overseas to the garage workshop of some guy in Guiyu, China, whose job it is to recycle it. I've visited a bunch of these so-called recycling operations. Workers, without protective gear, sit on the ground, smashing open electronics to recover the valuable metals inside and chucking or burning the parts that no one will pay them for. So while I'm on to my next gadget, my last gadget is off poisoning families in Guiyu or India or Nigeria. Each year we make 25 million tonnes of e-waste which gets dumped, burned, or recycled. And most recycling is anything but green. So are the geniuses who design these electronics actually...evil geniuses? I don't think so, because the problems they're creating are well hidden even from them. You see the companies they work for keep these human and environmental costs out of sight and off their accounting books. It's all about externalizing the true cost of production. Instead of companies paying to make their facilities safe, the workers pay with their health. Instead of them paying to redesign using fewer toxics, villagers pay by losing their clean drinking water. Externalizing costs allow companies to keep designing for the dump. They get the profits and everyone else pays. When we go along with it, it's like we're looking at the toxic mess and saying to companies: "You made it but we'll deal with it." I've got a better idea. How about "you made it, you deal with it"? Doesn't that make more sense? Imagine that instead of all this toxic e-waste piling up in our garages or in the streets of Guiyu we sent it to the garages of the CEOs who made it. You can bet that they'd be on the phone to their designers pretty fast demanding they stop designing for the dump. Making companies deal with their e-waste is called Extended Producer Responsibility, or Product Takeback. If all these old gadgets were their problem, it would be cheaper for them to just design them longer lasting, less toxic, and more recyclable in the first place. They could even make them modular, so that when one part broke, they could just send us a new piece instead of taking back the whole broken mess. Already, take-back laws are popping up all over Europe and Asia In the US, many cities and states are passing similar laws. These laws need to be protected and strengthened. It's time to get these brainiacs on our side. With tack-back laws and citizen action to demand greener products, we can start a race to the top where designers compete to make long-lasting, toxic-free products. So let's have a green Moore's Law: How about the use of toxic chemicals will be cut in half every 18 months. The number of workers poisoned will decline at an even faster rate. We need to give these designers a challenge they can rise to and do what they do best: Innovate. Already some of them are realizing they're too smart to be dump designers and are figuring out how to make computers without PVC or toxic flame retardants. Good job, guys. But we can do even more. When we take our e-waste to recyclers, we can make sure they don't export it to developing countries. And when we do need to buy new gadgets, we can choose greener products. But the truth is, we are never going to just shop our way out of this problem. Because the choices available to us at the store are limited by the choices of designers and policymakers outside of the store. That's why we need to join with others to demand stronger laws on toxic chemicals and on banning e-waste exports. There are billions of people out there who want access to the incredible web of information and entertainment that electronics offer. But it's the access they want, not all the toxic garbage. So let's get our brains working on sending that old designed-for-the-dump mentality to the dump where it belongs. And instead build an electronics industry and a global society that's designed to last. ♪♫♫♪♪♫♪♪♫

Video Details

Duration: 7 minutes and 46 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: Annie Leonard
Views: 1,094
Posted by: julius on Nov 13, 2010

The Story of Electronics, releasing Tuesday, NOVEMBER 9, employs the Story of Stuff style to explore the high-tech revolution's collateral damage—25 million tons of e-waste and counting, poisoned workers and a public left holding the bill. Host Annie Leonard takes viewers from the mines and factories where our gadgets begin to the horrific backyard recycling shops in China where many end up. The film concludes with a call for a green 'race to the top' where designers compete to make long-lasting, toxic-free products that are fully and easily recyclable.

Our production partner on the electronics film is the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, which promotes green design and responsible recycling in the electronics industry.

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