Soenke Zehle on Tue, 23 Oct 2001 23:03:43 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> War on High-Tech Waste (Interview with Ted Smith/SVTC)

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October 2001ē Vol.12 Issue 10

War On High-Tech Waste
by William Van Winkle

By now, nearly every American realizes fossil fuel use is detrimental to
the environment. Never mind the destruction that often goes into extracting
the fuels; the actual use of fossil fuels is a chief contributor to global
warming and the air pollution now sending asthma rates skyrocketing. And
who can forget the images of Alaskaís pristine wilderness lacquered with
crude oil from the inevitable accident of the Exxon Valdez?

What most Americans don't know is that a similar environmental biohazard
exists in the technology industry. Every CPU, circuit board, LCD
(liquid-crystal display) screen, and CRT (cathode-ray tube) display we use
involves the use of dozens of hazardous materials. One industry study
revealed that the production of each 200mm (millimeter) silicon wafer, the
bed material on which processors are built results in seven pounds of
hazardous waste. As with the handling of any dangerous material, accidents
happen. Thanks to Arizona-based Intel and Motorola fabrication plants, a
contaminated ďplume" nearly ten miles long exists below Phoenix, shrinking
the already scarce amount of safe drinking water available to the city.

The SVTC (Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition; is probably
the single most active non-government body involved in combating
tech-related environmental issuesóand for good reason. The SVTCís map of
hazardous air pollutants around Santa Clara County looks like a bulls-eye
target with San Francisco Bay at ground zero. Silicon Valley is the
nationís single most contaminated area. SVTC executive director Ted Smith
is determined to change that, however, not just to improve the Bay area,
but to make the entire world safer and more livable. His weapon of choice
in this war on waste is information.

SC: Broadly speaking, what are some of the hazards of technology production?

A: When you look at the impact of raw material extraction, the processing
that goes on in the production stage, the use, as well as the disposal,
thereís hardly another product in the world that contains as many hazardous
materials and has such a hazardous affect on the environment as the high
tech industry. There are well over 1,000 materials used in a typical
computer workstation, many of which are hazardous, some of which are not
even very well understood. At every stage of the production cycle, there
are problems that have come to light. What surprises me is that this
information is still unknown to most computer users.

SC: Doesn't the computer industry have a regulatory body for this as the
FDA [Food And Drug Administration] does for food?

A: Unfortunately, there's not. A law passed in 1976 called TSCA, the Toxic
Substances Control Act, was designed to require premarket testing for all
new chemical compounds. Of course, the materials that were in existence
prior to that were grandfathered, which is a problem, but with the many,
many new ones that have come onto the market, the law just hasnít worked.
There are 80,000 chemicals or so in general commerce right now and
according to most of the studies Iíve seen, the majority of those
substances have never been tested for most of the health issues weíre
concerned about. Now, the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] has gone to
the Chemical Manufacturers Association and insisted that there be a crash
program to test thousands of large volume chemicals for their effects, but
thatís only the beginning. And thereís hardly any testing that looks at
multiple compounds to explore the cumulative effects. When you work in a
clean room, exposed to hundreds of different chemicals, it's like being in
a controlled rat study, only the rats are the people.

SC: What are some of the health detriments?

A: There have been several epidemiological studies. There was one study
done on the drinking water in San Jose back in the early 80s following the
discovery of ground water contamination from the high tech industry. The
state of California found about three times the rates of birth defects and
miscarriages in that neighborhood than they'd expected to find. There have
been three other studies done with women who work inside clean rooms at the
plants, and all three of those found elevated cases of miscarriages. Most
of the people who work in clean rooms are women, often immigrants or
low-income women who just arenít aware of the exposures theyíre being
subjected to. Weíve been trying to convince the industry for years to do
tests and find out the actual rates of cancer and birth defects among the
people working in the industry, but to date the Semiconductor Industry
Association and its member companies have refused to do those studies,
despite pending lawsuits both in the United States and abroad. I mean,
between 4 and 8 pounds of lead go into every CRT monitor, and the harmful
effects of lead have been documented for centuries.

SC: Are flat panel displays a safer alternative?

A: Instead of lead, they use mercury in the switches of flat panels, so
there's a different set of issues.

SC: Given the current power crisis in California and elsewhere, how much is
technology in general or computer systems in particular to blame?

A: This is actually a really important debate right now: What is the
overall role of the high-tech sector in energy demand? People are all over
the board on it, and I think weíre still far from a definitive answer. On
one hand, we know that the high tech manufacturing, as well as the use and
recycling stages, are all very energy intensive. One study estimated that a
single 6-inch semiconductor wafer required 285-kilowatt hours of energy.
Manufacturing in a clean room requires a huge amount of energy just to
circulate the air. They also require huge amounts of water that requires
deionization filtering, which also requires massive amounts of energy. And
a semiconductor plant will use more than a million gallons of water per day.

In the use stage, we have millions and millions of people who leave their
computers on for long stretches of time, and the monitor itself is the most
energy-intensive part of that.

The thing we've been focusing on recently is the incredible proliferation
of server farms. The San Jose City Council just approved a new server farm
from a company called US DataPort. Itíll be the largest one [server farm]
in the country. It will require 280 megawatts of power just to run that
server farm. That amount would power 280,000 households. And in order to
run, itíll not only require the 280 megawatts, but also backup systems
because we obviously can't rely on the grid in California anymore. For its
backup systems, it has sought approval for diesel storage tanks to fuel the
backup generators. Two of those tanks would be 100,000 gallons of diesel
fuel each, and several others would be 20,000 gallons. That gives you some
sense of the magnitude of power needed for the Internet. And we havenít
even touched on the energy required to extract the silicon and all the
other high tech materials.

SC: Is it reasonable to ask people to use less technology?

A: Oh, absolutely. We are living in the age of Wintel, the duopoly between
Microsoft and Intel that controls most of the new technology development.
Theyíre constantly trying to sell us more technology, more than most of us
need, because they have become locked into a business model that requires
selling new products rapidly. Moore's Law, which for the last 30 years has
underlain the industryís ability to double processor performance while
halving size every 18 months, has meant that not only are we now stuck with
huge amounts of e-waste, but it also means that the companies involved in
those kinds of activities have gotten used to an 18-month product cycle
and, therefore, have to figure out new ways of selling products. The amount
of money going into advertising to create demand for products that people
donít really need has been astounding. I saw a figures a couple years ago
that Intel had spent billions of dollars on its advertising budgetóthe
Intel Inside program. To do that when you already have a monopoly on the
market is unprecedented, and it's because Intel needs to continue to sell
at the rate it has grown accustomed to.

SC: Some of your organizationís statistics describe the negative effect of
moving from a 200mm to a 300mm fab process, a transition the industry is
now starting. Is this an argument not to advance the computer industry?

A: I donít think so. I donít think we have ever taken the position that we
have to stop progress. Itís not like the argument for nuclear power,
although a lot of the same issues are involved. Our approach has always
been to say that people deserve a responsible technology approach. That
means that there needs to be a lot more emphasis put on precaution and
prevention and anticipation of unintentional consequences. There needs to
be a much longer-term view from an industry that has grown up on short-term
product cycles. These are made even worse by global market pressures that
require quarterly returns. Thereís a lot of suffering going on right now
because the financial markets are saying, ĎYouíre not meeting the
projections that we anticipated, so weíre going to take it out on you.í
Trying to figure out how to address long-term thinking in a system thatís
run by global capital that demands short-term results is, I think, the
biggest challenge out there.

SC: Who's at fault - the government, capitalism, everyone?

A: There's certainly a compelling argument that beneficiaries are a very
different group of people than the people who are feeling the brunt of the
downside of development. We have maps on our site that show the people who
live in the most heavily polluted areas are the lowest income in
communities with the highest percentage of color. Itís a pretty direct
relation in all the areas weíve looked at. And that applies to nations, as
well as communities.

Who's to blame? That requires a fairly sophisticated answer. I think the
high-tech industry has been one of the principle conduits for rapid
globalization, particularly if you combine high tech with
telecommunications. But with it has come this free-for-all, frontier ethic
of developing markets at any cost, and it really rolled over the ability of
governments to have any handle at all on how to manage and regulate that
growth. The people who have been involved in making the decisions in high
tech are clearly part of the reason we find ourselves in such a mess, so in
that sense they certainly share in the responsibility for it. The thing
thatís disappointing to me is I havenít seen very many top executives in
the high-tech sector who have even recognized or thought reflectively on
the effect they've had.

SC: Are there alternatives to current fabrication technologies that would
be more environmentally friendly, even if the alternatives are more

A: Yeah, in some cases. Manufacturers still donít know how to make a
computer chip without using arsenic or gallium arsenide, for instance. (I
think thatís one of the best-kept secrets out there. We used to call
Silicon Valley ďGallium Gulch" or ďArsenic Avenue.") But there are things
that can be done, and some actually have been due to various pressures.
Certain materials have been phased out over the years. After seeing the
really horrible consequences of being dependent on chlorinated solvents,
the industry has pretty much gotten off those - everything from
trichlorethylene to CFCs [chlorofluorocarbons]. So that's been an important
progression. Likewise, manufacturers have been able to phase out the glycol
ethers, which were the most implicated as reproductive hazards in the
studies. But there's an awful lot of other material used and research that
needs to be done. 

On the materials use side, there are many ways that companies can reduce
their water and energy consumption and ways they can recycle their water. I
recently visited a number of semiconductor plants in Taiwan and found sites
recycling upwards of 50% of their water. The EPA in Taiwan is saying that
in the future the companies will have to recycle 85% because of the water
shortage there. [A similar situation exists] in Germany. We know there are
U.S. companies [in Taiwan] recycling upwards of 75% of their water because
the government demands it, but theyíre not doing it here because the United
States doesnít require them to. So more and more, the real environmental
innovations are happening elsewhere, and weíre falling into more of a
second-class treatment internationally. It's distressing.

SC: What happens to the cost of production as technologies become more
environmentally friendly?

A: The fear is always that regulations will drive up the cost of
production. But there's an awful lot of evidence that actually doing things
in environmentally efficient ways saves money. Thereís increasing evidence
of this even among some of the investment houses, because environmental
effectiveness means environmental efficiency. There's an old saying:
prevention pays. The companies here have spent hundreds of millions of
dollars cleaning up their ground water contamination, whereas it would have
taken a much smaller investment to do it right in the first place. I think
that lesson has gotten through to some degree, although it hasn't permeated
organizations like it needs to. Weíve been trying for the last couple of
years to get companies to pay attention to work that's been done by some
really excellent experts showing that if they recycle their waste water to
a significant degree, they're going to save money and get a return on their
investment in a fairly short time. But they're so locked into this
short-term thinking that itís very difficult for them to spend money on
environmental issues unless they can be convinced of an immediate return,
and they can justify it on financial grounds.

SC: What can the average technology buyer do to help the environment, and
would it require a lifestyle change?

A: I wish I could say that all you have to do is read the label to
understand which products have a lesser footprint on the environment.
Unfortunately, labeling is almost nonexistent. The only label of any
significance at all for electronic products is the Energy Star label, and
that is right now so mainstream that itís not really driving any new
conservation measures. And thereís no labeling that would tell you which
monitors use less lead. In fact, you wonít even find anything regarding
lead in the product specifications. California has just declared that at
the end of their life all CRT monitors are declared hazardous waste and
canít be put in landfills. Massachusetts is the only other state that has a
similar declaration, although itís based on different criteria. One of the
things weíre actively trying to do is get information to consumers so that
they can start using their purchasing power to send a message. What we hear
repeatedly from people inside of companies is, Oh, the consumers don't
care.í But it's hard to say that consumers don't care if they donít have
the information with which to make an informed decision.

Eco-labels have taken hold in many parts of the world, and in fact, in
Europe there are quite a few that are very effective and well-known. The
TCO [a standard for environmental labeling developed by The Swedish
Confederation of Professional Employees] label, for instance, is recognized
by something like 85% of the people in Sweden and acted upon in their
purchasing decisions. But even the companies that qualify for those labels
in Europe donít use them here in the United States.

SC: As Iím shopping for my next PC, is there any way to tell which vendors
are more environmentally friendly?

A: The best way I know of at this point is to go to our Web site and look
at our report card ( What
we did was make a comprehensive survey of the manufacturers that are the
main producers to try to learn about the attributes and specifications of
their computers. Weíre starting to do that again for this yearís report
card, which will be released in November. So you can go to manufacturers
Web sites individually and try to find that information (it's often not
very easy to locate or absent altogether), but ours is still the best way
that I'm aware of to get this information.

SC: Do you know offhand who the top two or three [vendors] are?

A: Out of the top 10, there was only one U.S. company, which itself is
pretty distressing, but that company was IBM. HP [Hewlett-Packard] was
maybe next. Dell and Compaq didn't come out very well, but that's based on
8 criteria with several subsets within each category.

SC: Why is it so hard to recycle a PC, much less a radio or TV?

A: The easy answer is that there are a lot of toxic materials that cost a
lot of money to deal with properly. But thereís also not a lot of
infrastructure available, and thatís one of the main things weíre trying to
work on now. We're following in the footsteps of the Europeans, Japanese,
and Taiwanese countries that have really established comprehensive systems
that require manufacturers to take back their old electronic equipment at
the end of its useful life to be either reused or recycled in a way that
will be either environmentally benign or beneficial.

SC: If people don't change their habits or demand change from public and
private organizations, what will happen? Are we on a finite timeline?

A: Itís hard to say. We don't have a doomsday clock, but I do think that
right now is as good a time as any to take stock of whatís happening for
two reasons. First, we're in a downturn right now. It's a good time to get
people to act differently before things gear up again. Second, we really
are in the middle of the largest industrial expansion in the history of the
world, particularly the transition from 200mm to 300mm [a reference to the
diameter of the wafer size in processors.]. This is a perfect time to start
building in new perspectives and protections as we gear up and build all
this new capacity. But if we miss this window, itís going to have profound
consequences for a very long time.

Name:Ted Smith

Company: SVTC (Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition)

Title:Executive Director

Facts: Smith practiced law in San Jose, Calif., from 1974 through 1983. He
was a "store front" lawyer, doing community law for low-income people. He
has taught Environmental Studies at San Jose State University and Labor
Studies at San Jose City College. He is co-founder and coordinator of the
International Campaign for Responsible Technology (I-CRT), an international
network committed to working for the development of sustainable,
nonpolluting technologies. In 1982, he started working for SVTC, a
19-year-old nonprofit organization consisting of environmental and
neighborhood groups, labor unions, public health leaders, people affected
by toxic exposure, and others. Smith gradually phased out his legal
practice and began working for SVTC full time in 1984.

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