The "Story of Stuff" riffs on Electronics

Ok, I do think these Stuff videos by Annie Leonard are nifty and very accessible.   But with great power, comes great responsibility.  Here is the newly released 7+ minute video they've put out on "The Story of Electronics".  I'll follow with some commentary.

First, I like that they begin with mining.    But they don't show the toxics that come out of mining.   Did you know that gold mining produces more mercury (as a bi-product) than MERCURY mining???  So I'm glad they started there, but they didn't really tell much of a story about it.  There is way more toxics, carbon, pollution, extinction and death in the beginning of the product lifecycle than at the disposal end. 

Had they recognized the harm of extraction, they may have caught their first fallacy... "Toxics In = Toxics Out."  So simple, but so Untrue.  The rarer the metal you are mining (gold, paladium, silver, tin), the more toxics enter the environment.  It is the process of mining and refining that creates pollution, not the toxicity of the final distilled product.  Replacing lead in solder with Tin, for example, may reduce the amount of lead in a rich country's lined landfill, but it will increase the lead and mercury (mining biproducts) in the places - like Indonesian coral islands - where they mine the tin.

Then, the video makes it look like the factories that make the Stuff are in the rich countries, and the junk is dumped in the poor countries.  Actually, Guiyu is close to Shenzhen.  Shenzhen China is where all the Ipods and laptops and PC boards are made, by contract manufacturers.  Most of the junk in Guiyu comes from employees in Shenzhen, who tend to own computers and to throw them out.  Hong Kong is also in the area, and it's one of the wealthiest cities in the world, with 7 million people throwing away "Stuff".

Third, they simplistically try showing that if the manufacturer has to take the Stuff back, that will be a solution.   Actually, it is the manufacturers who ARE taking the Stuff back.  Plastics go back to China, copper goes back to China, steel and aluminum and repairable CRTs all find their way back to the factories making Stuff.  It is PRECISELY BECAUSE that is where the manufacturing is, that is where the skill is, that is where demand is.

If "externalizing costs" was indeed the big explanation, couldn't we dump Stuff in the ocean, or send it to Haiti (which is poorer than China)?  Cost externalization doesn't explain which ports the material goes to - raw material demand does. is very talented and no doubt means well, and in many places they are great at capturing a complicated problem and making it understandable.  But with great power comes great responsibility.  It is not a bad film.  But it reflects insular thinking, groupthink, and emerges as propaganda not journalism.

This is the central theme of this Ethical "E-Waste" blog...

Western medicine is the best in the world, but not because the history of western hospitals is pretty.  Actually, from bleeding and leeching and burning people, to feeding spoonfuls of mercury to King Edward (as a laxative, I think), our history of cures is pretty awful.  But what saved western health care was peer review.  Being truthful, publishing findings, scientific method.  People studied the cures that were being peddled.  They collected data and took notes.   And they changed practices, causing western medicine to evolve.

My pain comes from environmental science which does not evolve.   We have a lot of film explaining how CRT contract manufacturing companies in Asia have been buying back the used CRTs, how white box manufacturing overseas is buying up used computers, and that the legitimate reuse of used equipment is the economic engine for the export market.  I'd like to see the community respond to those slide shows, point out where I may be mistaken, and return the favor of truth.


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Ted Smith said...

Here's what I think is the "take away" message from "The story of electronics":

"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? \" If we put comparable effort into designing safer, cleaner and longer lasting products, we would have the problems that we do. As examples , see and for information about an international campaign to address the cancer cluster at Samsung semiconductor in Korea.

Ted Smith, Chair
Electronics TakeBack Coalition

Robin said...

Thanks Ted, it's an honor to get your comments. I think you have in the past been someone who understands that the end point is not the whole story, and that in the study of health, "nutrition" trumps "scatology". Your perspective on the processes of manufacturing will help to explain why I defend reuse.

Electronics Manufacturing said...

Ethics in electronics manufacturing often seems to be limited only to the US and Western Europe. I speak from experience in saying it's hard to compete with companies in China and elsewhere that don't have to concern themselves with the environmental effects of their manufacturing process or feel any obligation to the welfare of their employees.