Date sent: Thu, 08 Aug 1996 15:55:55 +0200
From: (by way of Pit Schultz )
Subject: nettime: Information Technology A Dirty Industry


Although it is smokeless, the modern information technology is not as clean as its proponents make it out to be, say critics. From production to disposal, data-processing and telecommunications tools are already proving to be an environmental liability.

By Malcolm Howard

Colorado Springs, Colorado: Rosy predictions that developed nations will evolve from a dirty industrial era to a cleaner information age are proving to be more virtual reality than real science.

Famed futurist Alvin Toffler made the prediction in his book The Third Wave. Instead of producing manufactured goods in smoke-belching factories, Toffler suggests successful workers of the future will make ends meet by processing information via inherently cleaner technologies.

But as environmental protection agencies and groups struggle to keep pace with new technologies, Toffler's optimistic claims, which have captivated the US media and leading politicians, are coming under increasing scrutiny.

From production to disposal, the data-processing and telecommunications tools produced for the information age are already proving to be an environmental liability, critics say.

'High-tech manufacturing is an extremely chemical-intensive process,' says Leslie Byster, programme director for the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. 'It's definitely not clean.'

The birthplace of the United States' personal computing revolution, California's Silicon Valley, is a symbol of the entrepreneurship and ingenuity that made personal computing a reality. But Silicon Valley is also now littered with 'Superfund' sites, the designation for the United States' highest priority toxic waste clean-up efforts.

As early as 1983, the California Department of Industrial Relations reported that work-related diseases among electronics workers were three times higher than in most other manufacturing sectors. They came in second only to agricultural workers, who are exposed to high levels of pesticides and fertilisers.

Still, the image persists that the info age is environmentally benign. Indeed, many predict the telecommunications revolution will in fact cure many environmental ills, from deforestation to air pollution.

Microsoft software magnate Bill Gates, for example, writes in his best seller The Road Ahead, that the office which relies more on e-mail than paper, will reduce our use of trees, energy, and ink.

The United States' premier futurist politician, Newt Gingrich, adds (in To Renew America) that telecommuting will become 'the best means of dealing with air pollution'. In the future, he reasons, more people will report to work via modem than in smog-spewing cars.

But even as environmental groups join the rush to do business on the Internet, there's considerable doubt that Third Wave boosters are correct in their predictions.

Eco-thinkers such as Theodore Rozsack, Kirkpatrick Sale, and Jerry Mander have written their own books which, in essence, argue for increased scrutiny of technology from an environmental point of view. These authors say the cyber age is merely an extension of the industrial age, as ubiquitous mass communications technology isolates people even further from the natural world.

Whatever the case, the computer age brings with it a whole new set of ecological challenges. While many environmental groups pressure industry to use less toxic materials during production, many also hope to counter the computer's clean image.

The issue is important, says Byster, as cities and states compete vigorously to lure what they see as 'light' industry with tax incentives and more flexible pollution standards.

In recent years, the US$137 billion-a-year semi-conductor industry has dispersed from Silicon Valley to places as far away as Bozeman, Montana and Bangalore, India, where according to trade magazines, 'terms are agreeable.'

Cities such as Austin, Texas, for example, have sought out high-tech firms with tax abatements, as well as water and power subsidies. But just as Austin's silicon belt widens, a vociferous environmental movement is growing.

In October 1995, a group of Mexican-Americans and African-Americans in Austin filed a civil discrimination complaint with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), charging that the agency is allowing the city to unfairly site toxic facilities in Austin's economically depressed Mexican- and African-American communities.

While few from those communities get high-tech jobs, these neighbourhoods are being hit with inordinate amounts of air pollution, says Susana Almanza, director of Poder People Organised in Defence of Mother Earth and Her Resources, which filed the complaint.

Recent surveys by Texas' state environmental agency have found a stew of airborne carcinogens in the air around the Austin neighbourhood. At the same time, Poder and a growing number of national environmental groups are working to get industry to use fewer toxic materials during production.

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are a main target of concern. CFCs are known to pose great danger to the ozone layer that screens out the lethal ultra-violet rays of the sun. First developed as coolants to help in the spread of refrigeration and air-conditioning, CFCs have also aided the computer revolution since they can clean delicate circuitry without damaging plastic mountings.

International treaties banning CFCs have led to reduced use of the compounds, but Rick Hind, legislative director for Greenpeace's Toxics Campaign, says electronic firms still must use fewer toxins such as chlorine in manufacturing.

While electronics makers are using less chlorine in circuit-washing mixtures, they are major consumers of Poly-Vinyl-Chloride, or PVC, a ubiquitous, tough plastic that uses chlorine, says Hind.

The release of chlorine during production can be deadly in rivers and wetlands, Hind notes, adding that the presence of chlorine in plastic makes the already dirty process of recycling even more difficult.

But the pollution cycle does not end when a computer rolls off the assembly line, environmentalists note. For example, it is estimated that 5% of all electricity use by business is drained by computers. That is roughly the equivalent wattage produced by 10 coal-fired power plants and that amount is expected to double by the year 2000.

In response, the EPA and high-tech manufacturers are cooperating on the development and use of energy-saving devices, now common on many computers, that shut off or reduce energy flow when computers sit unused.

Still, it is unknown whether the savings generated by such devices will offset increased use of computers in future businesses and homes.

Another unresolved issue is paper use. As more people get on the Internet, the use of e-mail for personal and business correspondence will drastically reduce paper use, says Don Rittner, author of Eco-Linking, Everyone's Guide to On-Line Environmental Information.

Rittner says that people in the United States currently chop down 238 million trees in order to produce 775 billion pages of paper. While Rittner says environmentalists should encourage e-mail use as a way to keep forests standing, others expressed doubt.

'There's no proof that paper use is down,' says Greenpeace's Hind, adding that desktop publishing, word processing, and easier printing means paper is being gobbled up even faster.

But the debate does not end there. More than 10 million computers a year end up in landfills, where their junked batteries and central processing units leach lead, nickel, cadmium and mercury into aquifers, according to EPA reports.

'That's more true in the (IBM-cloned) PC world than in the Mac world,' says Rittner, adding that Macintosh computers tend to live longer, while the vast number of cheap IBM knock-offs, all built using different components, make them harder to recycle.

'Still, there is a movement to refurbish PCs,' Rittner says.

The East-West Education Development Foundation, for example, refurbishes computers and sends them to 130 countries. Around the country, dozens of companies dissect computers then resell reusable components to wholesalers and distributors. Rapid obsolescence of hardware, however, makes such recycling efforts extremely difficult.

While the industry as a whole has resisted efforts to build computers with easily reusable parts, some see other positive signs.

Hewlett Packard, Canon, and Apple will pay for people to ship back the used ink cartridges from ink-jet printers. This is good news, says Rittner, because up to 98% of the 15 million ink cartridges sold each year wind up in landfills. - Third World Network Features/Inter Press Service


About the writer: Malcolm Howard is a contributor to Inter Press Service, with whose permission this article is reprinted.

When reproducing this feature, please credit Third World Network Features and (if applicable) the cooperating magazine or agency involved in the article, and give the byline. Please send us cuttings.


** End of text from **

This material came from PeaceNet, a non-profit progressive networking service. For more information, send a message to