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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
     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
     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
     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
     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
     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
     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
     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
     '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
     While the industry as a whole has resisted efforts to build
computers with easily reusable parts, some see other positive
     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
** End of text from cdp:labr.global **

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