Death by Design Screening, August 22 at Champaign Public Library

On Tuesday, August 22, the Illini Gadget Garage will be hosting a screening of the documentary Death by Design at the Champaign Public Library. Doors will open at 6:30 PM and the film will begin at 7:00. The film duration is 73 minutes.

The Illini Gadget Garage is a repair center that helps consumers with “do-it-together” troubleshooting and repair of minor damage and performance issues of electronics and small appliances. The project promotes repair as a means to keep products in service and out of the waste stream. The Illini Gadget Garage is coordinated by the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center.

Death by Design explores the environmental and human costs of electronics, particularly considering their impacts in the design and manufacture stages, bearing in mind that many electronic devices are not built to be durable products that we use for many years. Cell phones, for example, are items that consumers change frequently, sometimes using for less than 2 years before replacing with a new model. When we analyze the effort put into, and potential negative impacts of, obtaining materials for devices through efforts like mining, the exposure to potentially harmful substances endured by laborers in manufacturing plants, and the environmental degradation and human health risks associated with informal electronics recycling practices in various parts of the word, the idea that we might see these pieces of technology as “disposable” in any way becomes particularly poignant. For more information on the film, including reviews, see http://deathbydesignfilm.com/about/  and
http://bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/dbd.html. You can also check out the trailer at the end of this post.

After the film, there will be a brief discussion and Q&A session facilitated by Joy Scrogum, Sustainability Specialist from the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) and project coordinator for the Illini Gadget Garage. UI Industrial Design Professor William Bullock will also participate in the panel discussion; other panelists will be announced as they are confirmed. Professor Bullock is also an adviser for the Illini Gadget Garage project; see more about IGG advisers at http://wp.istc.illinois.edu/ilgadgetgarage/meet-the-advisers/.  Check the IGG web site calendar and Facebook page for room details and panelist announcements.

Admission to this public screening is FREE, but donations are suggested and appreciated to support future outreach and educational efforts of the Illini Gadget Garage. See http://wp.istc.illinois.edu/ilgadgetgarage/donate/donation-form/ to make an online donation and http://wp.istc.illinois.edu/ilgadgetgarage/ for more information on the project.

Bullfrog Films presents…DEATH BY DESIGN from Bullfrog Films on Vimeo.

Amnesty International Shines a Spotlight on Cobalt Supply Chains

amnestylogoIn case you missed it, a new report by Amnesty International has been making headlines as it ties child labor and unsafe working conditions to electronics manufacturing supply chains. See for example, “Children as young as seven mining cobalt used in smartphones, Amnesty says” (Annie Kelly for The Guardian, 1/18/16) and “Your Smartphone May Be Linked to Child Labor” (Jan Lee for Triple Pundit, 1/21/16).

According to the report, over half the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and 20% of that is from artisanal mines where young children may be involved in unsafe practices exposing them to high levels of cobalt. From the Triple Pundit article linked to above, ‘“As with adult miners,” Amnesty International corroborated, “they were exposed to high levels of cobalt on a consistent basis, but did not even have gloves or face masks to wear.” In most cases, the authors pointed out, the financial gain of their work was nominal: “[The children reported] they worked for up to 12 hours a day in the mines, carrying heavy loads, to earn between one and two dollars a day.”’

Cobalt has a number of industrial applications, including widespread use in lithium ion battery cathodes. These batteries are used in hybrid and electric vehicles, as well as in our ubiquitous portable electronic devices, such as cell phones, laptops, tablets, digital cameras, and handheld games. While cobalt is an essential element in small quantities (it’s a component of vitamin B12), high levels of exposure may have adverse effects on the respiratory system, the cardiovascular system, and cause dermal, hematological, and immunological effects (see http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp33-c2.pdf).

The full report may be downloaded from the Amnesty International web site in English, Chinese, or French (PDF Format; 88 pages). According to the site: “This report documents the hazardous conditions in which artisanal miners, including thousands of children, mine cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It goes on to trace how this cobalt is used to power mobile phones, laptop computers, and other portable electronic devices. Using basic hand tools, miners dig out rocks from tunnels deep underground, and accidents are common. Despite the potentially fatal health effects of prolonged exposure to cobalt, adult and child miners work without even the most basic protective equipment. This report is the first comprehensive account of how cobalt enters the supply chain of many of the world’s leading brands.”

You can also check out the Amnesty International video below:

Reminder: Manuscripts for Special Edition of Challenges Due 12/31/15

challenges-logoManuscripts are still being accepted for the special issue of the journal Challenges, entitled “Electronic Waste–Impact, Policy and Green Design.” 

From the issue’s rationale:

“Electronics are at the heart of an economic system that has brought many out of poverty and enhanced quality of life. In Western society in particular, our livelihoods, health, safety, and well being are positively impacted by electronics. However, there is growing evidence that our disposal of electronics is causing irreparable damage to the planet and to human health, as well as fueling social conflict and violence.

While global demand for these modern gadgets is increasing, policy to handle the increased volumes of electronic waste has not kept pace. International policy governing safe transfer, disposal, reclamation, and reuse of electronic waste is nonexistent or woefully lacking. Where laws do exist about exporting and importing hazardous waste, they are routinely circumvented and enforcement is spotty at best. While European Union countries lead the way in responsible recycling of electronic and electrical devices under various EU directives, most industrialized nations do not have such policies. In the U.S., for example, most electronic waste is still discarded in landfills or ground up for scrap.

It is imperative that we consider how green design practices can address the growing electronic waste problem. This special issue is meant to do just that and spur discussions on how electronic products can become greener and more sustainable.”

If you are interested in submitting a paper for this special issue, please send a title and short abstract (about 100 words) to the Challenges Editorial Office at challenges@mdpi.com, indicating the special issue for which it is to be considered. If the proposal is considered appropriate for the issue, you will be asked to submit a full paper. Complete instructions for authors and an online submission form for the completed manuscripts are available on the Challenges web site at http://www.mdpi.com/journal/challenges/special_issues/electronic-waste#info. The deadline for manuscript submissions is December 31, 2015. Questions may be addressed to co-guest editor Joy Scrogum.

Flame Retardants Continue to Ignite Controversy

Flame Retardants in Printed Circuit Boards Partnership IconDuring Pollution Prevention Week back in September, I wrote a post for the Great Lakes Regional Pollution Prevention Roundtable (GLRPPR) Blog on the environmental and human health impacts of flame retardants. In that post I talk about decisions by major health systems to stop purchasing furniture treated with flame retardants in response to the adverse effects associated with many of these chemicals, and describe the compounds as an illustration of the importance of employing source reduction and safer alternatives during product design and manufacture.

Recently, flame retardants have been in the news again in the last few months, as 16 companies and organizations signed the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) Purchaser’s Pledge, committing to specify and purchase furniture products that meet flammability standards without the use of chemical flame retardants.

Recent research has shown that Michigan’s bald eagles are among the most contaminated birds on the planet when it comes to phased-out flame retardant chemicals in their livers. Despite being phased-out, the flame retardants in question are persistent and bioaccumulative, meaning that top-predators like eagles continue to deal with exposures from the past.

Additionally, on December 15th, the US EPA Design for Environment Program announced an updated draft report of the DfE Partnership to Evaluate Flame Retardants in Printed Circuit Boards.

From the DfE web site: “The purpose of this alternatives assessment is to provide objective information to help members of the electronics industry more efficiently factor human health and environmental considerations into decision-making when selecting flame retardants for PCB applications. This draft assessment provides updated human health and environmental information on flame retardant alternatives to tetrabromobisphenol-A (TBBPA) for use in circuit boards. TBBPA is one of the most commonly used flame retardants for printed circuit boards in electronics. The report includes a description of differences in combustion by-products from burning printed circuit boards containing alternative flame retardants at temperatures simulating uncontrolled recycling or incineration. In parallel with this draft assessment, industry trade groups tested alternative non-halogenated flame retardants and found that they function equally as well or better than TBBPA-based circuit boards for certain products.”

This updated draft assessment is available for public review and comment until February 15, 2015.  There’s still time to provide your input. Please submit comments to Docket NO. EPA-HQ-OPPT-2014-0893 via www.regulations.gov.

For more information on the DfE draft assessment, see http://epa.gov/dfe/pubs/projects/pcb/, or contact Emma Lavoie.

Check Out Regolith: A Short Documentary on Scrap Workers in Ghana

At the beginning of Pollution Prevention Week back in September, I wrote about Agbogbloshie, in Accra, Ghana, and how it has been included on a list of the ten most polluted places in the world. In that previous post, I referred to Terra Blight, a documentary contrasting the use and perceived disposability of electronics in our Western culture versus the lives of those in Agbogbloshie, particularly a 13-year-old boy, who make a living gleaning precious materials from cast off electronics. I will continue to highly recommend that film (if you’re at the University of Illinois you can check the DVD out from the library).

For an immediate glimpse into life in Agbogbloshie, check out a short documentary film (around 9 minutes) on this region, directed by Sam Goldwater, called Regolith. This video was recently made a “staff pick” on Vimeo.

REGOLITH from Imagefiction Films on Vimeo.

In case you’re wondering, “regolith” is “a layer of loose, heterogeneous material covering solid rock. It includes dust, soil, broken rock, and other related materials and is present on Earth, the Moon, Mars, some asteroids, and other terrestrial planets and moons.” (Wikipedia) The use of the term, which is so often applied to the surface of the Moon or other planets, seems appropriate. Earth’s surface in Agbogbloshie has been transformed by humanity’s short-sighted, wasteful tendency to design and deploy products without whole life cycle considerations, into a nightmarish landscape, simultaneously alien and uncomfortably familiar.

Pollution Prevention Week: E-waste and the World’s Most Polluted Places

Happy P2 Week, Everyone! If you’ve never heard of this celebration, P2 stands for Pollution Prevention, and P2 Week is celebrated from September 15-21, 2014. P2 Week is in fact celebrated annually during the third week in September, and according to the National Pollution Prevention Roundtable (NPPR), it’s “an opportunity for individuals, businesses, and government to emphasize and highlight their pollution prevention and sustainability activities and achievements, expand current pollution prevention efforts, and commit to new actions.” Check out their site and P2 Week Tool Kit, as well as the US EPA’s Pollution Prevention Week page for tips on preventing pollution at home and work.

Top Ten Toxic Threats Report CoverPreventing pollution is of particular importance when it comes to considerations of sustainable electronics design, manufacture, use, and disposal, given that an annual report by the Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross Switzerland included for the first time in 2013, Agbogbloshie, in Accra, Ghana, as one of the ten most polluted places on Earth.  The Top Ten Toxic Threats: Cleanup, Progress, and Ongoing Challenges 2013 edition “presents a new list of the top ten polluted places and provides updates on sites previously published by Blacksmith and Green Cross. A range of pollution sources and contaminants are cited, including hexavalent chromium from tanneries and heavy metals released from smelting operations. The report estimates that sites like those listed in the top ten pose a health risk to more than 200 million people in low- and medium-income countries.” Other notoriously contaminated sites on the list include Chernobyl in the Ukraine, the Citarum River in Indonesia, and the heavy concentration of tanneries in Hazaribagh, Bangladesh.

The Agbogbloshie site has been the focus of a lot of recent media attention due to the extensive environmental degradation caused there by informal electronics recycling; it is the second largest electronic waste processing site in West Africa. If you would like to see the extent of the pollution, and get a feel for the lives of the people who work in the area, some of whom are children, I recommend the film Terra Blight. (See my previous post on this film’s inclusion in a sustainability film festival on campus, and the LibGuide that accompanies the films from the festival. The film can be checked out from the Prairie Research Institute Library by those on the UI campus or via interlibrary loan.) A number of striking photo essays have also been published, including one earlier this year in the Guardian by photographer Kevin McElvaney. The film and photos show us the stark consequences of endless manufacturing advances and consumer quests for upgrades. Gadgets that aren’t responsibly recycled may end up in landfills, or worse–in places like Agbogbloshie where the poor try to earn an honest living processing the waste to salvage precious materials using whatever means are available, including fire or rocks to hammer open lead-laden monitors.

It is the lead spilled into the environment through informal recycling that earns Agbogbloshie its place on the Top Ten Toxic Threats list, though certainly other toxins are released from the electronics processed there. From the report’s highlights: “Agbogbloshie is a vibrant informal settlement with considerable overlap between industrial, commercial, and residential zones. Heavy metals released in the burning process easily migrate into homes, food markets, and other public areas. Samples taken around the perimeter of Agbogbloshie, for instance, found a presence of lead levels as high as 18,125 ppm in soil. The US EPA standard for lead in soil is 400 ppm. Another set of samples taken from five workers on the site found aluminum, copper, iron, and lead levels above ACGIH TLV guidelines. For instance, it was found that one volunteer had aluminum exposure levels of 17 mg/m3 compared with the ACGIH TLV guideline of 1.0 mg/m3.”

Lest you think the answer to this tragedy lies exclusively in preventing export of unwanted electronics from the first world to the third, increasingly developing countries are becoming sources of e-waste themselves. Indeed, the Top Ten Toxic Threats report notes “Ghana annually imports around 215,000 tons of secondhand consumer electronics from abroad, primarily from Western Europe, and generates another 129,000 tons of e-waste every year.” Even if it weren’t true that developing countries are also sources of e-waste, cutting off certain flows of such waste ultimately shifts problems from one place to another, resulting in different, yet still complicated issues. The leaded glass in CRTs, for example, is becoming increasingly difficult to process, as the demand for its reuse in the creation of new CRT monitors is dwindling. Currently only one manufacturer of CRT monitors remains, in India. Within the US states struggle to find ways to deal with massive amounts of CRT glass from obsolete TVs and computer monitors, leading to controversy over proposed uses (such as alternative daily cover material in landfills) and nightmarish stories of CRT glass stockpiles being left for authorities to manage after recycling operations go out of business.

The point is that the only long-term solution to stopping environmental degradation in places like Agbogbloshie, and the struggles to find safe and widely accepted end-of-life management options for electronics and all their components is to practice true pollution prevention–through source reduction, modification of production processes, promotion of non-toxic or less toxic materials, conservation of natural resources, and reuse of materials to prevent their inclusion in waste streams. This will by no means be easy, nor will the changes necessary happen overnight. But it’s work that must be done, and done by ALL of us, in whatever way we interact with the electronics product lifecycle. Designers and manufacturers must learn and practice green chemistry and green engineering. Consumers must become aware of the sustainability issues surrounding electronics and make more informed choices–including buying less by extending the useful lives of devices as much as possible. And recyclers, policy makers, entrepreneurs, manufacturers, and consumers must all work to ensure that materials from products that have reached the end of their first intended life be collected and reclaimed for use in new processes. Electronics are something we all use, at home and at work, in one form or another. And through images and statistics like those from Agbogbloshie, we understand that environmental and social impacts of our industrial world do not truly go “away” any more than waste itself does.

To learn more about pollution prevention, visit the Great Lakes Regional Pollution Prevention Roundtable (GLRPPR) web site. GLRPPR is posting P2 week information all week on its blog, including two posts contributed by SEI related to electronics. Check out the GLRPPR blog on Tuesday (9/16/14) for source reduction tips for electronics consumers, and on Thursday (9/18/14) for information on flame retardants and electronics.

Recent Headlines: Occupational Risks for US Electronics Recyclers; Counterfeit Electronics; & Tracking E-waste Exports

It has been another interesting month for sustainable electronics. Here are a few highlights:

NIOSH highlights occupational health & safety risks for US electronics recyclers

On July 24, Resource Recycling announced the release of a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report that I have long awaited, having heard about the study at a conference several months ago. The report details results from analyzing air, surface, and employee blood samples from an undisclosed US electronic scrap recycling facility. The study also entailed interviews with employees to determine possible improvements for health and safety procedures. From the report: “The Health Hazard Evaluation Program received a request from a health and safety manager at an electronic scrap recycling facility…We evaluated air, surfaces, blood, and urine for metals…We also evaluated noise exposures. We found overexposures to lead, cadmium, and noise. Some employees had blood lead levels above 10 ug/dl. We provided recommendations to prevent these exposures to employees, and to prevent unintentionally taking metals home to family members.” Lead was detected on clothing and skin of workers, and on various surfaces throughout the facility.

We often hear about risks associated with informal recycling operations in other countries in the media, but seldom, if ever, hear about risks to US workers in formal recycling operations. We also tend to take for granted that people know about the dangers of exposure to lead because of lead-based paint and the outreach associated with that—it’s really stunning to read this report and realize how big an issue the lead associated with electronics reclamation can be. We can’t assume that recycling workers are properly trained on the hazards and how to avoid contamination. A 13-point list of recommendations was drawn up to respond to NIOSH’s concerns, including updating the ventilation system, segregating CRT glass breaking areas and a remodeling of facility work stations and procedures to ensure worker safety. All facilities that handle electronic waste would do well to review this list and consider their own situations.

E-waste exports and counterfeit electronics

On July 15th, the Coalition for American Electronics Recycling issued a press release stating that defense and technology experts expressed support for the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act, or RERA (HR 2791, S.2090) at a recent Congressional briefing. Their reason? The export of non-functioning or untested electronics is allegedly providing feedstock for counterfeiters in countries like China. Scrap microchips may be washed and relabeled to look new by such counterfeiting operations. These counterfeit electronics could present threats to safety and security, if they were to be used like new components in equipment and fail. The example given in the press release is that of an airplane–you wouldn’t want an older, component, sold as if it were new, to fail mid-flight. Panelists argued that RERA would combat the problem of counterfeit electronics in defense supply chains by requiring the domestic recycling of nonworking, non-tested e-waste. Plus, it could create US jobs.

Global e-waste generation and export

Finally, a new report published in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology, entitled Tracking the Global Generation and Exports of e-Waste. Do Existing Estimates Add up? shows that nearly a quarter of e-waste discarded in developing countries flows into just seven developing countries in 2005, with potential risks to environmental and human health in those countries. Those developing countries included China, India and five West African countries: Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Benin and Liberia. Researcher Knut Breivik and colleagues analyzed data from many studies to determine more reliable estimates than previously reported, highly variable estimates for global e-waste flows.

Follow SEI on Twitter to stay informed of other sustainable electronics current events, and check our online news page.

Photo Essay Offers View of Village Where Beijing’s E-Waste Accumulates

Photo: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

There’s a reason why the ever-present “THEY” say “a picture’s worth a 1000 words.” It’s simply true that no matter how much you’ve read or heard about an issue, sometimes it doesn’t really resonate with you until you witness the impact on other beings. I noticed this particularly during recent screenings of Terra Blight as part of the 2014 ISTC Sustainability Film Festival (see also previous post). That documentary includes stunning images of e-waste dumps in Ghana, contrasting the lives of scrap workers there with the lives of folks in the US, who take technology for granted, often treating it as disposable because of its ubiquity. Images of computers at the Ghanian dumps with property tags from prominent US companies, governments, and organizations (including the US EPA) left quite an impression on film goers, and even elicited animated responses from the auditorium staff who had previewed the film before the event to ensure the DVD and AV system worked properly. I could have easily stood in front of the audience and lectured for an hour on sustainable electronics issues, but even with a stack of statistics, sound bytes, and sensible arguments, I couldn’t have made half the impression of those images. The best way to understand what sustainability is can be to see exactly what it isn’t.

Because of this simple truth, I like to share information on documentaries, photo essays, and other visual arts that help tell the stories of environmental and social impacts of technology and human activity. Images related to e-waste, like the aforementioned Terra Blight, often tell stories about one nation or group of nations impacting another. While these stories are true and important, repeated examples of such images can create a sense that e-waste social issues are exclusively about Western society impacting the rest of the world by treating the rest of the world as the “away” to which waste might be shipped. The reality is much more complex (as is the case with any sustainability issue). As the economies of other nations develop, those nations become e-waste producers themselves, and over time they will struggle with handling their own waste streams, not just those of others. We need to focus not just on stopping the flow of waste across boundaries, but also on reducing the generation of waste in the first place, creating products that last, that are repairable, and which can be efficiently dismantled for the reclamation of resources in a way that is safe for the environment and laborers.

Reuters photographer Kim Kyung-Hoon recently visited Dongxiaokou, a village in China that serves as the hub for e-waste from nearby Beijing. His blog post, “Living on e-waste,” includes photos chronicling the experiences of  residents of this village, who have for years collected and recycled electrical and electronic waste from Beijing. He notes; “The amount of e-waste out there is growing and growing. China is now the planet’s second biggest producer of it, only behind the United States, according to information from a 2013 environmental conference…Pollutants from the recycling and disposal process have turned the water a strange colour, and the small stream in the village is tainted with a rancid smell. Mounds of abandoned garbage that cannot be recycled surround Dongxiaokou and children play on piles of waste.”

Despite the conditions and meager earnings, the villagers are simply trying to make a living, and are concerned that Dongxiaokou is set to be demolished as part of an urbanization program. This plan not only means displacement and a potential loss of livelihood for the village residents–it could also spell trouble for Beijing, since the government does not, according to Harrison Jacobs of Business Insider, have an alternate plan in place for dealing with e-waste that currently accumulates in Dongxiaokou. The demolition of the village may lead to improved environmental conditions in the area in time, but it’s likely the problem will simply shift to another location unless more sustainable waste management plans are made. “Away” will become somewhere else, until we find better ways to link informal recycling operations with formal ones, as discussed by Mike Ives for Yale360 and Williams et al. in their article “Linking Informal and Formal Electronics Recycling via an Interface Organization.”

Check out Kim Kyung-Hoon’s photos and commentary on Dongxiaokou here, and see some of his additional shots in Harrison Jacobs’ 6/4/14 article for Business Insider.

Recent Sustainable Electronics Headlines

Below are links to recent news articles related to sustainable electronics. To keep up on the latest sustainable electronics news, periodically check the Sustainable Electronics Initiative web site or follow SEI on Twitter or Facebook.