by contributor Joshua Katcher of “The Discerning Brute“.

Dear Discerning Brute:

I need to buy a new computer, but I know that there are major issues with electronics–including human rights issues (particularly in the DR Congo) as a result of the mining for the metals that make our electronics work.  In all other areas of my life (I ride a bike and public transportation, I’m vegan, I reduce and reuse and recycle, etc.), I try to be a very conscientious consumer.  But I have no idea how to even start in this area.  Do you know anything?  Is there a Fair Trade seal for electronics?

Thanks!
Eli W.

Hi Eli,

That seems like a pretty straightforward thing to ask, and being sort of a truth-seeker, my research led to some very uncomfortable territory, so put on your virtual seat-belt – because what you are about to find out is that the electronics industry can rival the holocaust when it comes to mining in Congo, where over 5 million people have died and hundreds of thousands of women are raped and mutilated, children are sent into mines, and civil war, militias, occupations, and illegal smuggling has wreaked havoc on people, animals, and ecosystems. It is considered the deadliest conflict since WWII, but, while there is no certification yet for “conflict-free” and “green” electronics, there is a glimmer of light in this incredible darkness.

Welcome to the Machine

One of the first things we should ask seems obvious. What is a computer? Because of the internet and related things like networks and interconnectivity with other electronics, it’s not such a cut and dry question anymore. Many technologies intertwine to create the “technosphere” that most modern humans live in – where almost everything we do is mediated by some form of computerized technology. Even socializing, renting a movie, and just buying a head of broccoli is both mediated by computers and provides data to corporations and governmental agencies. We are visible to satellites, connected through our cellphones, and accounted for at every ATM, university, airport, train station, and taxi. Your ethnicity, favorite TV show, credit history, every website you visit, every job you’ve had or applied for, and what you had for lunch 5 years ago are all kept on file in computers and accessible at any time. What happens to all this information that is gathered? In this “age of surveillance”, computers have become more than just fancy word-processors on our desks. They are our keepers, and we are becoming parts of a larger machine with an aagenda. It’s scary stuff if you’re someone who wants to change the status-quo – like an environmentalist.

“The idea that technology is neutral—that it doesn’t have social, political and environmental characteristics—is really dangerous…If computers enable you to do your work a little better, I don’t argue with that. But it’s an illusion for us to believe that our use of the computer will somehow change the centralized system of power. For those who would like to see equitable and sustainable systems develop, the use of the computer amounts to a net loss, not a net gain.” – Jerry Mander

This is a controversial statement, but the net gain from using computers as an activist tool is questionable in comparison to the environmental and social net loss. Why we all doing this less-risky activism (blogging and facebooking) as opposed to participating in direct action asks a much deeper question that is suitable for another article.

More sinister aspects of the computer business include planned obsolescence: things being designed to serve no use at a future date so you must buy more. Computers are like a two-way mirror, and there are people on the other side who know exactly what you’re doing and figuring out how to make money on that.  A widely held belief is that technology is neutral. That it can be used for good or evil depending upon who is weilding it. When we consider where most technology develops from, we find that those providing the research and development funds are governmental agencies, especially the military and corporations, thus every techology is planned to be utilized in warfare and to make money.

The trouble is that scientists are trained to evaluate new technologies only with a rudimentary cost-benefit analysis. Why aren’t we grounding our scientists in ethics? Why aren’t we requiring that they learn evolutionary biology — a far better basis for evaluating technology than some kind of pie-in-the-sky cost-benefit ratio? Carolyn Raffensperger

In a larger context, it’s almost impossible to participate in modern society without the moderation of a personal computer or electronics that connect you to the grid – from identification cards to hidden chips in consumer products. Even my dog has a microscopic locator chip in his neck. It would not be difficult to implant every child with one.

Let’s get back to practical part of your question, Eli. Physical stuff. One big environmental problem with computers is that we live in a disposable culture where the technology changes so quickly that keeping up requires frequent upgrades. Since it’s often cheaper to purchase a new computer than to have your old one retrofitted, an incredible amount of computer waste accumulates in landfills, or is recycled in developing countries where hazardous computer waste poses significant risks to those disassembling them and those living, eating, and drinking near dump sites and recycle plants. A UN University Report cited that in 2004, the average PC required 10-times the weight of the final product in chemicals and fossil fuels. Those chemicals are highly hazardous and include lead, arsenic, antimony trioxide, polybromiated flame retardants, selenium, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, and mercury. Now, as computers get smaller, you’d think the impact would lessen, but quite the opposite has happened. According to the BBC, the same report found that manufacturing a 53 lb computer with monitor needs at least 530 lbs of fossil fuels to provide the energy, and 50 lbs of chemicals. Add to that, 1.68 tons of water, and your PC that may be only 6 years old,  used up the weight of a military cargo truck in raw materials before it even left the factory!

Check out the original Story of Stuff. A MUST SEE for anyone who wants to know how everything is made.

Miner holding coltan
Miner holding coltan

Conflict-free electronics? Just days ago, Foreign Policy released an article claiming that there is finally some light at the end of the tunnel for Congo, with introduction of two major pieces of draft legislation: , the Conflict Minerals Trade Act in the House and the Congo Conflict Minerals Act in the Senate. Further initiatives to expand the Kimberly Process for conflict-fee diamonds to include minerals used in electronics are being considered by the Congolese, Rwandan, and Ugandan governments.

Congo’s conflict, the world’s deadliest since World War II, is not really a war — it’s a business based on violent extortion. There are numerous armed groups and commercial actors — Congolese, Rwandan, and Ugandan — that have positioned themselves for the spoils of a deliberately lawless, accountability-free, unstable, highly profitable mafia-style economy. Millions of dollars are made monthly in illegal taxation of mining operations, smuggling of minerals, and extortion rackets run by mafia bosses based primarily in Kinshasa, Kigali, and Kampala. The spoils are tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold, minerals that go into laptops, cell phones, MP3 players, and jewelry stores in the West. Armed groups use terrifying tactics such as mass rape and village burning to intimidate civilians into providing cheap labor for this elaborate extortion racket.  – ForeignPolicy.com

Mining the metals for computer parts in various parts of the world has caused incredible social problems. In the Philippines, entire villages have been torn down to access metals like gold used in electronics. Indonesian authorities recently discovered a shipment of nine 40-foot shipping containers of e-waste that had been illegally sent from the U.S. state of Massachusetts. India, China, and Africa are most affected socially and environmentally by electronics graveyards. But the most notorious social situation has unfolded in the DR Congo Coltan (short for Columbite-tantalite) is a dull, black, metallic ore used by large corporations and is the cause of armed conflicts. When refined, it is the vital element used to make electric capacitors within laptop computers, mobile phones, pagers, and other electronic devices. Rwanda has occupied the eastern DR Congo to prevent DRC from exploiting its own coltan supply. In addition, A 2003 United Nations report charged that a great deal of the ore is mined illegally and smuggled over the country’s eastern borders by militias from Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda. What’s worse is that children and prisoners-of-war commonly do the hard labor. Sony’s Playstation 2 is the notorious cause for the price of coltan to soar. Sony claims not to use Congolese colton, but that claim is shaky at best. Up to 80% of the world’s coltan supply lies beneath the Congo and everything from your  cell phone to your computer probably has parts from this tumultuous area. “Kids in Congo [are] being sent down mines to die so that kids in Europe and America could kill imaginary aliens in their living rooms,” said Ex-British Parliament Member Oona King in an article by Yahoo. Genocide, rape, child labor and western apathy are explored in an article for The Sunday Independent by Johann Hari. You can watch Amy Goodman’s interview of Johann Hari on Democracy Now:

http://sitemaker.umich.edu/section002group3/files/coltan_map_-_french.jpg“This war was launched by nations that sensed – rightly – that our desire for coltan and diamonds and gold far outweighed our concern for the lives of black people. They knew that we would keep on buying, long after the UN had told us time and again that people were dying to provide our mobiles and games consoles and a girl’s best friend.” – Johann Hari

Estimates of the Congo’s fraction of the world’s coltan reserves range from 64%source to 80% source. Environmental impacts of the global demand for coltan have resulted in the destruction of the reainforest and national parks to decimation of endangered animals.

In order to mine for coltan, rebels have overrun Congo’s national parks, clearing out large chunks of the area’s lush forests. In addition, the poverty and starvation caused by the war have driven some miners and rebels to hunt the parks’ endangered elephants and gorillas for food. In Kahuzi Biega National Park, for example, the gorilla population has been cut nearly in half, from 258 to 130.” United Nations Report

Who is using Congo’s coltan? Almost every electronics company.

The easiest thing you can do right now is click this link and follow the instructions:

Raise Hope For Congo Take Action

Learn more about the conflict and what you can do at The Enough! Project.

Electronics Waste Stats:

a still from "Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia"
  • Electronic waste is a fast growing category of municipal solid waste source
  • E-waste grows globally by 40 million metric tones a year source
  • About 3 in 10 consumers replaced their computer last year source
  • An estimated 50 million tonnes of E-waste is produced each year source
  • Computer waste in India alone will grow by 500% from 2007 levels by 2020source
  • The USA discards 30 million computers each year source
  • 4 million computers are sent to “die” in China annually source
  • In the United States, an estimated 70% of heavy metals in landfills comes from discarded electronics source
  • The U.S. National Safety Council estimates that 75% of all personal computers ever sold are now gathering dust as surplus electronics.source

A growing number of Information Technology (IT) vendors and users are moving towards Green Computing. The major goals of Green IT is to continually reduce hazardous materials and chemicals used, increase energy efficiency, and design for recyclability and biodegradability.

What to do about “greening” electronics:

Before we talk about greening electronics, it’s important to remember where this technology trickles-down from:

“A surprising amount of the cool stuff we use every day has its origins in research done by the likes of NASA and the military. Big governments are often willing to shell out the big bucks to give their fighting forces and space programs a technological edge, and while few of us will ever encounter the resulting products in their original form, almost all of us use some of the übercool gear that’s a direct spin off from this research.” – Brett Jordan

“If three hundred years of chainsaws, CFCs, depleted uranium, automobiles, genetic engineering, airplanes, routine international trade, computers, plastics, endocrine disrupters, pesticides, vivisection, internal combustion engines, fellerbunchers, dragline excavators, televisions, cellphones, and nuclear (and conventional) bombs are not enough to convey the picture, then that picture will never be conveyed.” Derrick Jensen

Still, there has been significant movement toward making “greener” electronics. I prefer “less deadly” to “greener”, but I don’t think Apple would have a winning campaign of their new, “less deadly” iPods or laptops. Greenpeace International offers an invaluable Guide to Greener Electronics that bases ranking in three major areas: Hazardous materials reduction, takeback and recycling programs, and reducing climate impacts. This is the most comprehensive analysis I came across, but again, there is no centralized, third-party certification system yet, and it is crucial to be aware of greenwashing when considering any of these companies’ claims. Nokia and Sony Ericsson are leading the pack by far, but they mainly focus on cell phones. For computers, Toshiba ( in 3rd place) is the greenest, and Apple (5th place) has made strides, but still has a way to go.

Organizations working towards greener and fair-tade electronics:

  • Make IT Fair is a European project focusing on the electronics industry, especially on consumer electronics like mobile phones, laptops and MP3 players. We want to let young people across Europe know about the labour abuses and environmental problems that are going on right now around the world.
  • Good Electronics was created to strengthen & stimulate civil society organizations and workers worldwide in their actions to improve human rights and environmental conditions in the electronics industry, with a focus on workers and grassroots organizations in production countries
  • AddressTheMess.com is a Comedy Central pro-social campaign that seeks to increase awareness of the dangers of electronic waste and to encourage recycling. Partners in the effort include Earth911.org, ECOInternational.com, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency‎.
  • The Electronics TakeBack Coalition is a campaign aimed at protecting human health and limiting environmental effects http://www.shardt.com/emailengine/72/Public/BBImages%5Cbbcgetty1.jpgwhere electronics are being produced, used, and discarded.
  • The grassroots Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (svtc.org) focuses on promoting human health and addresses environmental justice problems resulting from toxins in technologies.
  • Basel Action Network (BAN.org) is uniquely focused on addressing global environmental injustices and economic inefficiency of global “toxic trade”. It works for human rights and the environment by preventing disproportionate dumping on a large scale. It promotes sustainable solutions and attempts to ban waste trade.
  • Texas Campaign for the Environment works to build grassroots support for e-waste recycling and uses comunity organizing to pressure electronics manufacturers and elected officials to enact producer takeback recycling policies and commit to responsible recycling programs.
  • The World Reuse, Repair, and Recycling Association is an organization dedicated to improving the quality of exported electronics, encouraging better recycling standards in importing countries, and improving practices through “Fair Trade” principles.

We look forward to viewing the upcoming The Story of Electronics” by the geniuses behind “The Story of Stuff” animation.

The Story of Bottled Water - Coming Soon!></h2><p align=

I hope this helps. As always, recycling your electronics creates lass demand for extracting new resources. Good luck out there, and we look forward to hearing your comments!