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Where has all the toxic waste gone?

Our increasingly ravenous hunger for new technology, ie. smart phones, flat screens, iPads, grows by the day. Frank Romano looks at the environmental cost of all this new stuff and considers how it compares to technologies of the past and the effect on the environment

By Frank Romano
Published: September 10, 2010

There is a communications revolution in handheld devices that is more powerful than the telegraph, radio, and television--together. However, what we watch and read on screens pollutes our brains and the screens themselves eventually pollute our environment. The energy to light up those screens comes from fossil fuels which pollute our air.

Just think of how much media have changed:
50 million+ iPhones
190 million accesses to Twitter every month
500+ million Facebook users
Facebook Mobile has 150 million+ users
More than 1 million Apple iPads sold per month

Don Carli, in a PBS MediaShift article, has been the most vocal reporter about sustainability. He and others have seen a shift in preference from traditional media to digital media. According to a PriceWaterhouseCoopers report, Global Media and Entertainment 2010-2014, digital media's share of consumer spending is growing at double digit rates and is expected to reach 33 percent of their entertainment and media spending by 2014.

The same is true for marketing and publishing, two major users of print. They are shifting volume to “low cost” electronic media. We use quotes because we still do not know the real cost of electronic media and the devices used to consume that media. Things that are electronic appear to be less expensive than things that are analog.

Growth in the number of broadband mobile connections and wireless devices is extraordinary. The world will reach 50 billion mobile connections within this decade with 80 percent of all people accessing the Internet using their mobile devices. It is estimated that there are over 500 million 3G subscriptions worldwide with more than 2 million mobile subscriptions being added per day.

At current rates of growth we may soon face a zettaflood of data, and the number of broadband wireless connections, smartphones, e-books, tablets, game consoles and wireless devices with IP addresses will outnumber humans on our planet by an order of magnitude. The World Wireless Research Forum predicts 7 trillion devices for 7 billion people by 2017 -- a thousand devices for every human being on the planet.

Don says we are are becoming a world of digital media hyper-consumers that need to develop a better understanding of the connections between our digital media appetites and their lifecycle environmental impacts before they become our undoing.

There is no reliable way to determine and compare the greenhouse gas emission or e-waste impacts associated with digital media consumption. The impact of an individual decision or transaction may be negligible, but the aggregate impact of billions of connections and trillions of transactions cannot be left unexamined and unmanaged.

Energy use alone is an issue and most of that energy comes from carbon-based fuels. But even all that pales in comparison to the long term effects of the electronic trash we generate.

ABI Research says that 53 million tons of electronic waste were generated worldwide in 2009, and only about 13 percent of it was recycled. The Electronics Take Back Coalition (ETBC) estimates that 14 to 20 million PCs are thrown out every year in the U.S. alone. There has been a recent surge in e-waste created by aggressive marketing encouraging consumers to "upgrade" basic voice-only mobile devices to 3G and 4G smartphones and mobile game consoles. There has also been an enormous surge in monitors and TV sets because of low cost large flat screen displays.

The EPA estimates that over 99 million TV sets, each containing four to eight pounds of lead, cadmium, beryllium, and other toxic metals, were stockpiled or stored in the U.S. in 2007, and 26.9 million TVs were disposed of in 2007 -- either by trashing or recycling them. E-waste shows a higher growth rate than any other category of municipal waste.

Between 2005 and 2006, total volumes of municipal waste increased by 1.2 percent, compared to 8.6 percent for e-waste. The United Nations report “Recycling -- from E-Waste to Resources” predicts that e-waste from old computers will jump by 500 percent from 2007 levels in India by 2020 and by 200 percent to 400 percent in South Africa and China. E-waste from old mobile phones is expected to be seven times higher in China and 18 times higher in India. China already produces about 2.3 million ton of e-waste domestically, second only to the United States, which produces about 3 million tons each year.

E-waste contains over 1,000 toxic materials harmful to humans and the environment, including chlorinated solvents, brominated flame retardants, plasticizers, PVC, heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants, plastics and gases used to make electronic products and their components such as semiconductor chips, batteries, capacitors, circuit boards, and disk drives. E-waste can also contain tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold. I never heard that gold was waste and would be happy to take it off your hands.

The digital media industry has a long way to go before it can declare itself sustainable, or justify its environmental footprint. Remember, paper comes from the earth and returns to the earth. Maybe it isn’t so bad after all.

Where Have All The Flowers Gone
(With apologies to Pete Seeger)

Where have all the PCs gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the PCs gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the PCs gone?
Folks have dumped them every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Where have all the flat screens gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the flat screens gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the flat screens gone?
Into landfills every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Where have all the cell phones gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the cell phones gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the cell phones gone?
Gone to China every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Where has all that toxic waste gone?
Long time passing
Where has all that toxic waste gone?
Long time ago
Where has all that toxic waste gone?
Into earth and water everywhere
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Where has all that electronic pollution gone?
Long time passing
Where has all that electronic pollution gone?
Long time ago
Where has all that electronic pollution gone?
Still there in a thousand years
When will we ever learn that paper is not so bad?
When will we ever learn that paper is really good?

Frank Romano has spent over 50 years in the printing and publishing industries. Many know him best as the editor of the International Paper Pocket Pal or from the hundreds of articles he has written for publications from North America and Europe to the Middle East to Asia and Australia. Romano lectures extensively, having addressed virtually every club, association, group, and professional organization at one time or another. He is one of the industry's foremost keynote speakers. He continues to teach courses at RIT and other universities and works with students on unique research projects.

Please offer your feedback to Frank. He can be reached at frank@whattheythink.com.

 

Discussion

By Miro Vejchoda on Sep 10, 2010

Print Industry needs to do a better PR job. I've been talking about this for 2-3 years now. I'm starting to see it coming around with ads in Publications and your article was great.

 

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