A couple of posts over at Rob Haggart’s always excellent APhotoEditor.com got me thinking about an old post on technology news site Slashdot about the coming exhaustion of rare earth elements used in the production of LCDs. Specifically, the NYU student’s comment that “Bringing the [hard-copy] New York Times [to class everyday] pains me because I refuse to believe that it’s the only source for credible news or Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism and it’s a big waste of trees.” (my emphasis added)
I’ll agree that credible and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism can be found from sources other than newspapers (magazines, for instance, are a great source…), but I just can’t believe the environmental argument against deadtree publications. To be sure, thousands and thousands of trees are felled every day to allow for the printing of daily newspapers (numerous sources online state (without much citation) that it takes 75,000 trees to produce each Sunday’s edition of the New York Times). More than that, the gasoline used to truck newspapers’ raw materials and the finished product from place to place is not an insignificant amount. That’s where e-ink, electronic paper, e-readers, laptops, kindles, iphones, and other digital delivery methods come in. See Esquire’s cover for the recent 75th anniversary edition (video below).
Environmentalists (I consider myself one) have done a lot of work over the years to push for more paper recycling, the use of post-consumer waste paper products, and a general reduction in the use of paper. In 1975, Business Week predicted a future of “paperless offices,” but anecdotal evidence suggests we have a long way to go despite reliance on computers, email, and the internet. Paper use needs to be reduce, surely, but at least trees are a renewable resource.
Over the past decade, the rapid increase in production of LCDs, used in laptops, flatscreen televisions, cell phones, and pretty much every screen you see throughout the day, has caused a run on a number of chemical elements that exist only in small supplies on earth. The Wall Street Journal summarizes a New Scientist article about the quickly depleting supplies of gallium, hafnium, indium, zinc, and copper. Experts estimate that gallium will run out in 2017, zinc in 2037, and copper in 2100. Indium sold for about $60 a kilo in January 2003 but was up to $1000 by August 2006. Coppers used everywhere (pennies, plumbing, wiring) and the rest of the elements mentioned in the articles are vital components in the production of computers. Without them, there are no LCDs or computers, or at least not ones as good as we have now. The depletion of gallium and indium already threaten the development of solar panels, apparently. Those elements allow for the production of panels nearly double the efficiency of ones currently on the market.
All of the computers (here meaning anything from desktop powerstations to ipones and kindles) used in the production, distribution, and consumption of online news require a tremendous amount of electricity. Online data servers usually reside in multiply, geographically redundant, climate-controlled rooms, chugging away 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The technology becomes more efficient each year, but when multiplied across the computers used in the production of any electronically delivered publication (editorial, advertising, business, in-house and online backups on the production side; web servers, web storage, gateways and routers that transfer web traffic from origin to destination; and each of the thousands of of consumers’ computers), the energy consumption is huge. All of these computers need to be maintained and replaced periodically, too, leading to the damning part of the whole digital revolution: the disposal of electronic waste.
Most discarded electronics (think about how many cell phones or iPods you and your immediate family have had over the past few years) end up in poor villages in Asia or Africa. The metals are harvested by poor workers with little or now safety equipment. A Salon.com article, “Where computers go to die…and kill” paints a dire picture:
In the southern Chinese village of Guiyu, many of the workers who dismantle high-tech electronics live only steps from their jobs. Their children wander over piles of burnt wires and splash in puddles by the banks of rivers that have become dumping grounds for discarded computer parts. The pollution has been so severe that Guiyu’s water supply has been undrinkable since the mid-’90s. Water samples taken in 2005 found levels of lead and other metals 400 to 600 times what international standards consider safe.
Evidence about the danger posed by these dumping grounds is relatively hard to come by, but a few studies have been done. A Science Daily article summarises one study of the levels of cancer-causing dioxin in women and children who live or work in these e-waste recycling areas. Their blood showed as much as 25 times the World Health Organization’s acceptable daily limit of exposure to the chemicals.
There’s a fantastic National Geographic photo essay and article on the subject from the magazine’s January 2008 issue. The pictures show both domestic recycling programs in the US and the horrific dumps in Ghana where men burn plastic in the open without any safety precautions. The pictures, which are quite intimate for such a taboo subject (I recently read an article about an AP reporter being chased from an e-waste town in China, but can’t find the article), show the ugly side of recent technological advances.
The argument for or against digital media is a lot more complicated than kills trees vs. not kills trees. As for me, I’ll choose the option that doesn’t kill humans any day of the week.
Further reading: One of the organizations that keeps coming up in these articles is the Basel Action Network, apparently a watchdog group that tracks the disposal of hazardous waste. They maintain a list of US-based recyclers of electronics that do not export the waste to the dangerous dumps of Asia and Africa. I’ve also run across a January 2008 New York Times Sunday Magazine article about the afterlife of cell-phones.