"Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return." –Genesis 3:19
"The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living." –Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire
Your iPhone is sleek and beautiful. It was designed in California and made in China. It contains within its form—the form of the commodity—the blood of the subaltern exploited for its production. It will soon be obsolete, ready to be burned in order to harvest the precious metals inside. It will soon turn into toxic dust. This is a dossier about this blood and this dust.
"digital wizardry relies on a complex array of materials: metals, elements, plastics, and chemical compounds. Each tidy piece of equipment has a story that begins in mines, refineries, factories, rivers, and aquifers and ends on pallets, in dumpsters, and in landfills all around the world."-Grossman, High Tech Trash
As consumer electronics become an important, if not, predominant form of commodity being consumed in many countries around the world, the concern regarding such technologies obsolesces and subsequent disposal has become an increasingly germane issue facing the contemporary world. What’s now know as “e-waste” or “electronic waste” has increasingly become one of the worlds most problematic forms of disposable product.
Because these electronics often contain hazardous chemicals or other toxic materials (such as Copper, antimony, beryllium, barium, zinc, chromium, silver, nickel, and chlorinated and phosphorus-based compounds, as well as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), nonyphenols, and phthalates) (Grossman 2006), their safe disposal require specialized forms of waste management or handling. Unfortunately, such concerns are all to often disregarded by the economy of “fast and cheep” disposal that dominate much e-waste’s eventual destinations, mostly in different parts of Asia and continental Africa, which first world companies and citizens alike are more than willing to turn a blind eye to. In this section, we will be entering a world of waste and circulation, the veritable dark underbelly to Marx’s ‘abode of production’, where the only thing more exploitative than the conditions under which many of the worlds consumer electronics are produced is the manner in which they are disposed of.
The Emergence of E-Waste
“Over the past two decades or more, rapid technological advances have doubled the computing capacity of semiconductor chips almost every eighteen months, bringing us faster computers, smaller cell phones, more efficient machinery and appliances, and an increasing demand for new products. Yet this rushing stream of amazing electronics leaves in its wake environmental degradation and a large volume of hazardous waste— waste created in the collection of the raw materials that go into these products, by the manufacturing process, and by the disposal of these products at the end of their remarkably short lives.” -Grossman, High Tech Trash
From the emergence of the digital age, industrial nations engaged in the never ending proliferation of electronics and other informational devices have been engaged in a relentless cycle of technological growth where preexisting (and often functional) electronic and communications infrastructure is continuously replaced by newer updated versions. As a result of this continuous drive to replace older (and not so old) electronics with new ones, many advanced nations around the world have increasingly found themselves with a growing surplus of obsolete electronics ranging from cell phones, home computers, and an assortment of other industrial and consumer electronics. While in the 1970s and 80s the problem of accounting for (i.e. developing a systematic program for dealing with the safe disposal and/or recycling of such products) discarded electronics seemed like an issue to be dealt with in the distant future, by the 1990s the massive proliferation of personal electronics and their ever accelerating rate of obsolescence expanded to a proportion that threatened to literally bury many advanced nations under a mountain of electronic waste (Rich, 2006).
According to environmental journalist Elizabeth Grossman, as of 2005 there were approximately 1 billion personal computers and over a billion cells phones in use around the world (Grossman, 2006). Unsurprisingly, the highest concentrations of consumer electronics exist in the worlds wealthiest nations. In the United States alone, Americans own over 200 million personal computers, with nearly “five hundred PC’s per thousand people,” standing as the highest per capita concentrations of computers for any large country internationally. Following the U.S., the next most “PC populous” regions are “Europe, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and Australia, which all average about two hundred to five hundred PCs per thousand people. In northern Europe the concentration of computers approaches that of the United States, and matches it in Scandinavia. Moving south and east, the number of PCs decreases to about fifty to two hundred per thousand people in Spain, Portugal, and eastern Europe.”(Grossman 2006). In the developing world, India and China have become some of the fastest growing markets for consumer electronics. Nationally, India is estimated to have about 5 PC’s per every thousand of its over one billion inhabitants, with a growth rate of ownership at about 40% per year (Grossman, 2006). Similarly in China, where the economy has experienced an exponential amount of industrial and commercial growth, there is approximately ten to fifty PC’s per every thousand people, a ratio that is currently increasing at a staggering rate.
Today it is estimated that Americans, with a population of roughly 290 Million, own over 2 billion pieces of high-tech consumer electronics (Grossman, 2006). Making up this demographic is a staggering density of electronic ownership:
Americans own over 200 million computers, well over 200 million televisions, and over 150 million cell phones. With some five to seven million tons of this stuff becoming obsolete each year, 11 high-tech electronics are now the fastest growing municipal waste stream, both in the United States and in Europe. In Europe, where discarded electronics create about six million tons of solid waste each year, the volume of e-waste— as this trash has come to be called— is growing three times faster than the rest of the European Union’s municipal solid waste combined. (Grossman 2006, p.7)
What accounts for this exponential rise in the amount of electronic waste accumulating around the world? The first thing to consider is the rapid rate at which high tech electronics have proliferated.
E-Waste: A Global Problem
Environmental Impact and Response
The Aesthetics of Waste
“To recreate, if not beauty, than aesthetic dimensions… in trash itself. That’s the true love of the world.”- Zizek, Examined Life
"Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience, the cumulative offering of more than a century and a half worth of those professional, specialized tourists known as journalists." Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others
The (Political) Economy of the Dump
"The most efficient means to recover value from e-waste is to destroy any computational ability it has, returning it to a raw state." —Samantha MacBride, The Immorality of Waste: Depression-Era Perspectives in the Digital Age