An Interview With Ted Smith

Co-editor of CHALLENGING THE CHIP & Founder of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, discusses the state of the global electronics industry

Q: What prompted you to assemble Challenging the Chip?
The book grew out of a global symposium sponsored by Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) in 2002 where people from 15 countries came together to share experiences and common challenges. We realized that we had important stories to bring to the attention of the general public, policymakers, communities, workers, and others around the world. Many of the communities most affected by negative high-tech impacts have been at the forefront of creating solutions. Challenging the Chip brings these stories together to document the incredibly brave and important efforts of many people over the last three decades. In addition, the book provides some direction and hope for a more sustainable future for all of us.

Q: Would you describe Challenging the Chip as an exposé of the electronics industry?
Challenging the Chip definitely exposes the dark side of the electronics revolution. In fact, the book includes the most comprehensive documentation ever published about the negative impacts that the electronics industry has had on communities around the globe. However, it is also about the bright side, written by people who have come together in workplaces, communities, and across borders to prompt the industry to examine the impacts to the environment and people’s health, and the social injustice towards workers in the manufacturing of its products. Challenging the Chip is about challenging the industry to use its incredible ingenuity to dazzle the world all over again with cleaner, greener technologies, products, and components that are free of toxics, easy to recycle, and produced without harm to those manufacturing, assembling, and disassembling them.

Q: What are the greatest health, environmental, and labor concerns with the electronics industry?
First, electronic products today are manufactured using more than a thousand toxic chemicals—many of which are known to cause cancers, miscarriages, reproductive problems, asthma, and other illnesses in the workers who make them, the communities surrounding the manufacturing facilities, and the places where e-waste is dumped and burned.
Secondly, the industry’s “planned obsolescence” of electronic products, makes it almost impossible to repair or upgrade existing machines, forcing consumers to buy the latest model and throw out the old one. The rapid pace of change is a real double-edged sword because new chemicals are being incorporated before adequate health testing is done, and we are also consuming faster than we can recycle.

Lastly, there has been a migration of high-tech facilities to impoverished developing countries with weak environmental and worker protections. This increases the power and profitability of electronics firms at the expense of local communities and workers many of whom are young women of color around the world.

Q: How viable is the vision of a sustainable electronics industry discussed in the book?
It’s entirely possible, but only if people are aware and come together to make the changes happen. The electronics industry is incredibly dynamic and has shown it is capable of change. Organizations like the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and efforts like the Computer TakeBack Campaign have moved companies like Dell (see Chapter 25) to take back and recycle their products. Today, Dell offers free recycling of any brand computer from anywhere in the world when you buy a new Dell. That’s enormous progress from where they were just a few years ago! An industry that’s been able to put thousands of songs, photos, and videos on a tiny chip has the capacity to pave the way towards a sustainable future.

Q: Do you think it is possible to change such a powerful and pervasive industry?
The stories in the book are written by progressive visionaries, scholars, and advocates in the field from all around the world who have already succeeded in bringing about change in the industry over a number of years, using a diverse range of tactics, including grassroots organizing, consumer education, market-based campaigning, litigation, health advocacy, shareholder initiatives, and government regulation. Until now, many of these stories have never been told, let alone gathered in a single text.

Q: You profile several people and organizations around the world. What similarities or differences do you see in the industry and how each country handles the issues of labor, environment, and technology?
Challenging the Chip describes similarities in the “environmental footprint” of high-tech development—worker health hazards, groundwater contamination, and air pollution—whether in California, Texas, Scotland, Taiwan, or Mexico. In Chapter 14, labor rights in Mexico are described in depth, showing the violations in the length of the work day, the poor wages, as well as issues of discrimination, harassment, and other basic human rights. Likewise, the photos in Chapter 21, show things like a child in India sorting through discarded electronic circuit boards without proper protection. The book also addresses the critical questions of the long term impacts of electronics manufacturing in China and India, where so much of the production and disposal are now occurring.

Q: You fill this book with “people’s histories.” What story moved you the most?
I am most moved by the story about Helen Clark, Jim McCourt, and their colleagues in Silicon Glen, Scotland (Chapter 12). Their persistence, courage and ingenuity moved the Scottish government to conduct the world’s most comprehensive health study of semiconductor workers. Their efforts have helped make working conditions in the industry safer and healthier not only in Scotland but around the world. It’s very sad that Helen gave her life in this struggle, but her spirit is still with us, and she is inspiring others to action.

Q: Challenging the Chip is an excellent handbook and reference guide for learning the electronics industry. Are there resources people can use to take action and become change-makers themselves?
The book includes a comprehensive list of organizations, resources, and web sites for readers to follow up their interests in working with others to change electronics in more healthy, environmentally-friendly, and socially just ways. Such resources are growing rapidly, as the leading groups continue to expand their work and as new groups become more involved. These resources will be regularly updated on the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition’s website,, which will serve as a clearing house and network hub for a variety of newly-emerging initiatives.