Thursday, July 20, 2006

Q&A with Elizabeth Grossman on e-waste

This week, reporter Mark Fontecchio interviewed, Elizabeth Grossman, an Oregon-based author who stumbled upon e-waste in her home town. In her experience as environmental reporter, Grossman started researching pollution on a local river for an environmental group and discovered that e-waste was a big culprit.

She set out on a multiyear journey to figure out what was going on with e-waste. Her result was the book High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, which was released earlier this year from Island Press. caught up with Grossman to ask her a few questions about how her book came to be and the growing issue of e-waste.

Could you explain how you got involved in writing this book?

Elizabeth Grossman: I got interested in this because I was doing some research on pollution in the Willamette River, which flows through Portland, Oregon. What I discovered was that the high tech industry was actually contributing the majority of this pollution. I had not spent any time thinking about high tech at all, I was just completely astonished by this, so I decided I would start poking around and figure out what was going on.

How did you conduct the research?

Grossman: I wanted to look at the scale of the whole life of the manufacturing process. It has to be a worldwide story because it's a global industry. Even if a company is U.S. in origin, has its corporate headquarters in the U.S., there are manufacturing facilities for products all over the world, and they sell into the international market. I did look at things internationally because you have to because this is a global business. A lot of the impetus behind current environmental regulations is coming from Europe and influencing all the companies.

How are regulations like WEEE and ROHS in Europe affecting manufacturers in the U.S.?

Grossman: Most companies are complying with these international directives. It doesn't make financial sense to make a product that you can sell in Copenhagen but can’t sell in New York.

What’s the U.S. doing about e-waste?

Grossman: Right now we have no national legislation governing how high tech electronic components are produced or disposed of. In this country, local governments are responsible for solid waste. There have been dozens of pieces of state legislation governing e-waste, but only a half dozen of them are truly substantive and involve banning things with display screens or, as in the case of Washington and Maine and also Maryland, require producers to be involved in some of the product takeback.

Were the vendors willing to talk to you about e-waste?

Grossman: I was pretty naïve about how forthcoming manufacturers would be. It's just a competitive industry, so proprietary. One of my disappointments was how I wasn’t able to go on site and see what was going on. In the end I was able to talk to everyone I wanted to, but it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be.

How good are the vendor takeback programs?

Grossman: They're all fully engaged in making these environmental improvements. All have takeback programs. They’re very controlled about the information they're willing to share.

What do you think about the federal government's response so far?

Grossman: I think they've been extremely slow to act and not anywhere near as aggressive to coming to grips about the exporting of e-waste to developing countries. The attitude is hoping that industry will help solve the problem. I think there is so much stuff that could slip through the cracks that anything that is entirely voluntary probably won’t work.

  • Read Fontecchio's article on data center managers' reaction to the e-waste problem.
  • On a related topic, check out Giles Slade's Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America


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