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5.4: E-waste: The Dark Side of Moore’s Law

  • Page ID
    4527
  • Learning Objectives

    After studying this section you should be able to do the following:

    1. Understand the magnitude of the environmental issues caused by rapidly obsolete, faster and cheaper computing.
    2. Explain the limitations of approaches attempting to tackle e-waste.
    3. Understand the risks firms are exposed to when not fully considering the lifecycle of the products they sell or consume.
    4. Ask questions that expose concerning ethical issues in a firm or partner’s products and processes, and that help the manager behave more responsibly.

    We should celebrate the great bounty Moore’s Law and the tech industry bestow on our lives. Costs fall, workers become more productive, innovations flourish, and we gorge at a buffet of digital entertainment that includes music, movies, and games. But there is a dark side to this faster and cheaper advancement. A PC has an expected lifetime of three to five years. A cell phone? Two years or less. Rapid obsolescence means the creation of ever-growing mountains of discarded tech junk, known as electronic waste or e-waste. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2007 the United States alone generated over 2.5 million tons of e-waste1, and the results aren’t pretty. Consumer electronics and computing equipment can be a toxic cocktail that includes cadmium, mercury, lead, and other hazardous materials. Once called the “effluent of the affluent,” e-waste will only increase with the rise of living standards worldwide.

    The quick answer would be to recycle this stuff. Not only does e-waste contain mainstream recyclable materials we’re all familiar with, like plastics and aluminum, it also contains small bits of increasingly valuable metals such as silver, platinum, and copper. In fact, there’s more gold in one pound of discarded tech equipment than in one pound of mined ore (Kovessy, 2008). But as the sordid record of e-waste management shows, there’s often a disconnect between consumers and managers who want to do good and those efforts that are actually doing good. The complexities of the modern value chain, the vagaries of international law, and the nefarious actions of those willing to put profits above principle show how difficult addressing this problem will be.

    The process of separating out the densely packed materials inside tech products so that the value in e-waste can be effectively harvested is extremely labor intensive, more akin to reverse manufacturing than any sort of curbside recycling efforts. Sending e-waste abroad can be ten times cheaper than dealing with it at home (Bodeen, 2007), so it’s not surprising that up to 80 percent of the material dropped off for recycling is eventually exported (Royte, 2006). Much of this waste ends up in China, South Asia, or sub-Saharan Africa, where it is processed in dreadful conditions.

    Consider the example of Guiyu, China, a region whose poisoning has been extensively chronicled by organizations such as the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, the Basel Action Network (BAN), and Greenpeace. Workers in and around Guiyu toil without protective equipment, breathing clouds of toxins generated as they burn the plastic skins off of wires to get at the copper inside. Others use buckets, pots, or wok-like pans (in many cases the same implements used for cooking) to sluice components in acid baths to release precious metals—recovery processes that create even more toxins. Waste sludge and the carcasses of what’s left over are most often dumped in nearby fields and streams. Water samples taken in the region showed lead and heavy metal contamination levels some four hundred to six hundred times greater than what international standards deem safe (Grossman, 2006). The area is so polluted that drinking water must be trucked in from eighteen miles away. Pregnancies are six times more likely to end in miscarriage, and 70 percent of the kids in the region have too much lead in their blood2.

    Figure 5.5 Photos from Guiyu, China (Biggs, 2008)

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    Russ Allison Loar – Junk Mountain CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.