Giles Slade, author of Made To Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America has two op-eds this week--in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Christian Science Monitor--on the disturbing issue of electronic waste. You can also listen to the interview he has with Leonard Lopate today on WNYC
Meanwhile, a few facts about e-waste that will drop your jaw:
*Americans “retired” (tossed out) 315 million working PCs in 2004, a 500% increase over the total for 2003.
*The average life expectancy of a new PC is now less than two years.
“What’s all the fuss?” one might ask. After all, who doesn’t like having the absolute latest in PC/cell-phone/Playstation/iPod/Blackberry technology? These devices allow us to lord it over our friends in ways we never could have dreamed of just a few short years ago.
The problem is that your cell phone is filled with poison. When you throw it away (along with that iMac that seemed so cutting-edge just last year!), you unwittingly release trace amounts of arsenic, antimony, beryllium, cadmium, lead, nickel, zinc, and a host of other chemicals into the environment. And when hundreds of millions of Americans do the same thing as you, those trace amounts become huge amounts.
What can we do with all this waste? When we burn it, we release these toxins into the air around us. When we bury it, the chemicals seep into the groundwater and poison it. Some would have us ship it to countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, where the economic situation is so desperate that leaders are prepared to trade environmental health for quick cash. Beyond the ethical issues involved such a scheme, Slade points out that if e-waste continues to proliferate at such astonishing rates, the world soon won’t even be able to build enough containers to get it to Pakistan!
Slade offers this history of “obsolescence” in America in order that we may understand just how we arrived at this dire state of affairs. “Planned obsolescence” started out as a business model, but it has become an American way of life. In Slade’s eyes, the phrase “made to break” becomes a metaphor for how our mania for consumption threatens to sink us in the end.
||| Read an excerpt from Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America.