Back in October, I trekked to Burlington, VT, for an annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists. Plus, one of my bestest friends, Amani, lives within a two-minute jog of the conference center, so I got to hang out with him. Lo and behold, I even ran into Nicole from high school as she spoke about green labeling on products and foodstuffs.
Arguments and emotions were intense in more than one conference discussion, especially those about nuclear power, climate change, and government secrecy. I'd have so much more to show (such as the hydrogen car fueling station) and tell if I'd remembered to bring my camera battery charger. Luckily, though, plenty of journalists did what comes naturally, so you can listen to MP3s of the heated debates and check out slide shows here.
At least I typed up some notes about the well-attended panel on toxic trash. You can blame Moore's Law for chips doubling in power and dropping in price every two years or so, feeding the mad cycle of obsolescence in consumer electronics. Want a phone with a video camera? You'll probably throw away last season's model that only took still pictures. Some 4,000 tons of gadgets and appliances get tossed each hour around the world.
''We're going through the largest industrial expansion in the history of the world,'' said Ted Smith, former executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.
Lately, however, big stories are piquing the public's interest in electronics waste. For instance, IBM electronics factory workers suffer high rates of cancer. We hear about iPod maker FoxConn's labor rights violations. The SVTC's Toxic Sweatshops report shows how prison labor is used to make shiny, new digital toys.
''It's not a good guys versus bad guys kind of issue," says High Tech Trash author Elizabeth "Lizzie" Grossman, whose book took an axe and gave the electronics industry so many whacks.
The Electronics Industry Alliance's Richard Goss agreed. "There's no desire by industry to use mercury or lead," he said, adding that the alternatives are dubious both in terms of practicality and safety. For instance, what if we learn later, after phasing out lead solder, that the substitute solder falls apart and millions of products need to be recalled? Wouldn't that be a bigger disaster than simply managing and recycling the known toxicants responsibly?
Goss noted that even while Europe bans heavy metals and brominated flame retardants from electronics, there are many exemptions. Flat screen monitors like the one that might be in your lap are allowed to contain 5 milligrams of lead. But that's far better than the four to 6 pounds of lead in boxy CRT monitors that were necessary to shield us from radiation back in the day. Plus, LCD monitors use 10 times less energy than cathode ray tube boxes.
Plastics containing DECA, a brominated flame retardant, are also exempt from Europe's ROHS rules, although manufacturers are phasing out this endocrine disruptor. But little is known about the ingredients in these plastics because NO epidemiological studies exist about BFRS, said Kellyn Betts, an editor at Environmental Science and Technology.
"This is one of the hottest research areas that we write about," she said.
Europe banned BFRs Deca, Penta and Octa. But because the United States and Canada have such high fire safety standards, BFRS and PBDES are 10 times more common in the bodies of North Americans than in people in the rest of the world. Omnipresent, these substances travel in dust, leaking from our supposedly sealed personal computers, televisions, and so much more.
"'They're everywhere,"' Betts said--probably in the cushions you sit on, the carpet underfoot, the drapes you toss open when you rise from the flame-retardant-soaked mattress on which you sleep. And these poisonous flame retardants wind up in our tissues and breast milk.
Next year China will introduce a good housekeeping seal on the bottom of all iPods, cell phones, TVs and all such electronics big and small, with a date stamp spelling when the safety of chemicals contained therein might start to seep outward, said Mark Schapiro of the Center for Investigative Reporting during another panel. He's working on a book to detail that and much more about how the U.S. is no longer the standard bearer for environmental, chemical, product safety (although Californians are fighting the powers that be, as usual).
The European Union and China are going much further to take precautions to protect people and ecosystems from potential hazards. Their new laws will change global industries, so we'll see the effects trickling down, but still the lower standards Stateside could mean more poisonous products for Americans. Just as China is shipping formaldehyde-laced lumber banned there to our shores, so we'll probably see an influx of junky, expired electronics shipped here, oozing chemicals that can cause cancer and monkey with our reproductive systems.