by Hyunsuk Shawn Yoo, Morgan Abbett
students at Stanford University
Have you ever thought about what happens to your used electronic products after you dispose them? Well, most computers, televisions, media players and other electronics, after being dumped after an average of mere 18 months of use, either are exported to the third world or dumped into landfills. “The Story of Electronics,” a short film produced by The Story of Stuff in coordination with Free Range Studios and Electronics TakeBack Coalition, explores the major problems associated with the estimated 6 billion tons of electronic wastes e-waste dumped so far. If you’ve never been interested in electronic waste, this movie is a good place to start on thinking about dealing with the issue.
Host Annie Leonard explains that electronics companies intentionally design their products to break after a short usable period so that consumers will keep buying more and more. A big problem is that much of those used electronics, including those given to the supposed “e-waste recyclers,” are shipped overseas to be dismantled by unprotected, underpaid workers, often children, who survive by collecting and selling the few valuable pieces and metals they can extract. And in their battle to scrap out a living, they are exposed to toxic metals like cadmium, mercury and beryllium, known to cause both acute and chronic poisoning in their lungs and heart.
The movie suggests that the effects of electronic production are not limited to backyard recycling shops in China and India; some of the highest levels of toxic contamination can be found right here in the Silicon Valley. As high-tech leader of the world, it is also home to the highest concentration of known toxic pollution sites, the result of decades of unregulated manufacturing.
Now what are we supposed to do about this global toxics emergency? As consumers, when we shop for electronics, we have to choose producers that are using socially and environmentally responsible practices. We must choose recyclers that actually recycle the wastes, not dump it in the developing countries under the guise of exporting electronics in order to maximize profits. This movie also urges the government to introduce legislation for less toxic products. In Europe, the strong government ban on e-wastes led the companies to get rid of PVC and toxic flame-retardants all together. A stronger law on e-wastes in the US will likewise encourage the companies to develop more environmentally friendly products.
The movie ends with the appeal to the producers to be involved in extended product responsibility, in which they not only care about increasing the quality of their products and selling them to the consumers in the beginning, but also about what happens to the products after they are used.
“The Story of Stuff” is a concise, user-friendly introduction to the issue of toxic electronic production and waste. The web-film’s eye-catching graphics and Leonard’s clear narration make it both informative and engaging, definitely worth the 8 minutes it takes to watch.