On electronics and “e-waste”

Burning electronics in ChinaI am a certified electronics aficionado. There’s a MacBook and an iPhone sitting on the desk in front of me, along with an external USB hard drive and a pair of computer speakers; on the adjacent desk, a USB turntable, cassette deck*, and two USB MIDI keyboard controllers. In the drawers of the desk are a mountain of cables, another USB hard drive, an iPod touch, a Bluetooth mouse, a remote control, and about 50 alkaline batteries of all different sizes. Also in the room are an LCD TV, an XBOX 360 and its attendant controllers (including Rock Band instrument controllers), an older laptop computer, a really old Macintosh SE, more cords and miscellaneous accessories, and of course a slew of digital media: more CDs, DVDs and game discs than I can count. (Oh yeah, there are also a couple hundred video game cartridges for the likes of the Atari 2600 and NES.)

I won’t be getting rid of any of this stuff in the immediate future, but someday it will be disposed of. And what of it then?

I don’t think I’ve thrown away any electronics in decades (although I will confess I rarely make the effort to recycle batteries). I know I have never recycled electronics — I don’t even know how I’d go about it. But when an electronic gadget outlives its usefulness for me, I do my best to dispose of it in a productive way: I give it to someone else, or I sell it at a garage sale or on eBay.

But back to the matter of recycling: what exactly happens with electronic gadgets when you recycle them? As is becoming increasingly well-known, most of them get packed up in giant shipping crates and sent across the ocean to places like China, India, Pakistan and sub-Saharan Africa. What happens then is mostly ignored by the rest of the world… out of sight, out of mind. Except it’s still there.

As this iFixit article describes, the “e-waste” ends up in impoverished communities where everyone, including children, works to break down the equipment and harvest valuable metals — copper and gold, mostly, at an average value of about $6 per device — from it by whatever means are available. This usually means burning, which releases toxic fumes into the air; and once the copper and gold are out, the rest is simply dumped, cluttering the landscape and leaving more toxic heavy metals (lead and mercury, especially) to seep into groundwater, further contaminating the environment in which these people live.

So, what are we to do? I’m not much of an activist: I don’t think protests get you very far. When there’s money to be made in something, it’s pretty easy for the makers of that money to ignore the ravings of the hippies picketing outside their doors. But if you want to be a conscientious consumer of electronics, the best thing you can do is to take actions that will prevent your gadgets from winding up in one of those China-bound shipping crates.

I’m not saying “don’t recycle your electronics,” although I suppose I am saying “don’t recycle your electronics if you don’t know where they’re going to end up.” The best thing you can do, I think, is probably what I’ve been doing all along anyway: keep the gadgets, or find someone else who wants them when you’re done with them. Ensure that they’ll get a maximum lifetime of use before they’re disposed of. (And by that time maybe you’ll think of them as collectibles and keep them in your personal electronics museum, like I’ve done with my Mac SE and the Atari 2600.)

Of course, there’s another solution, though it’s one I find a bit hard to swallow: don’t buy the stuff in the first place.

* Regarding the cassette deck: I’m proud to say that it’s something I recently acquired by salvaging it from a “free” pile at a neighbor’s curb after a garage sale.

“Fake Steve Jobs” on the true cost of Chinese manufacturing

I often complain about how just about everything is made in China these days. It’s about the exploitation of workers for the sake of cheaper goods. Well, in case you didn’t hear about it, a worker at the Chinese factory that makes iPhones committed suicide recently because he lost a prototype fourth-generation iPhone. And why did he commit suicide over this? Because he was apparently being tortured by his employers (Foxconn) over it. Presumably because this is the kind of mistake that might cost Foxconn their lucrative contract with Apple.

What was that factory worker’s life worth? Less than Foxconn’s iPhone manufacturing contract? Less than Apple’s potentially stolen trade secrets?

“Fake Steve Jobs” has posted a blog entry on the matter. If you’ve never read his blog before, the tone may be a bit shocking to you, but cut through the parody and there are a couple of paragraphs here that are probably the best critique ever of our reliance on cheap Chinese labor to manufacture the high-tech, low-cost devices we consume so voraciously:

Well, this is the world we are living in. These are the people we are dealing with. This is how we have to deal with them. We can’t make these products in the United States. Nobody could afford to buy them if we did. And, frankly, the quality would be about half what we get out of China. But these guys play rough. They really do. They are not nice people. And, though we talk a good game about how we insist on workers being treated with dignity, blah blah blah, well, I mean, come on. Have you ever been to China? We have. We’ve been to China. We know what goes on there. We know how they open your mail, and listen to your phone calls, and let their factories pollute like crazy and exploit workers, all in the name of progress. And we turn a blind eye to it. We let them know when we’re coming to visit, and they give us a tour and put on a little show of how great things are, and how wonderful the dorm life is, and afterward we pretend to keep an eye on them — but it’s all theater. It is. We know it. What’s more, you know it. Everyone knows it.

We all know that there’s no fucking way in the world we should have microwave ovens and refrigerators and TV sets and everything else at the prices we’re paying for them. There’s no way we get all this stuff and everything is done fair and square and everyone gets treated right. No way. And don’t be confused — what we’re talking about here is our way of life. Our standard of living. You want to “fix things in China,” well, it’s gonna cost you. Because everything you own, it’s all done on the backs of millions of poor people whose lives are so awful you can’t even begin to imagine them, people who will do anything to get a life that is a tiny bit better than the shitty one they were born into, people who get exploited and treated like shit and, in the worst of all cases, pay with their lives.

I’ve read plenty about the conditions in Chinese factories, enough to make me want to never buy anything that says “Made in China” on the label. But, honestly, that’s getting nearly impossible these days. It’s not just about being too cheap to buy the more expensive version of the product made somewhere else with better labor laws; it’s that in many cases there is no other option that wasn’t also made in China.

Apple products present the biggest dilemma for me personally. I’ve been a Mac-o-phile for over 15 years. I’ve staked my livelihood around work that depends integrally on things Apple makes, and they’re all made in China. And Apple’s not alone — as far as I know, all of the major computer companies contract out their manufacturing to Chinese firms. I suppose I could build my own PCs and switch to Linux, but even then, it would be hard to find all of the necessary components that go into a computer, with a “nothing-made-in-China” restriction.

So, for me, in many cases, boycotting Chinese-made goods is simply impossible. But I do what I can. If there’s another option, I’ll take it. I’m willing to pay more if I have to. And even though I’m writing this on an Apple computer that was manufactured in one of these same Chinese factories, perhaps speaking out on the matter is some small penance for my complicity in what’s going on.

There’s more on the story from Gizmodo and, as usual, I learned about it all from Daring Fireball.

It’s here…

My new iBook arrived today! I am very excited about it… although my enthusiasm has somewhat been tainted by the whole China thing.

I knew Apple was “assembling” many of their products, such as the iPods, in China now, although I had previously assumed they were still “assembling” the computers in Mexico. It was just seeing “SHANGHAI CN” as the origination locale on the FedEx tracking site that did it for me. I realize they ship custom-built Macs direct from the factory, but for some reason I hadn’t put together that that meant FedEx would be receiving the package in China and delivering it two-day to my house.

I’m not entirely sure why this is bothering me as much as it is; I guess it’s just that I usually have some (illusory) distance from the fact that the things I am buying are being produced by what might as well be considered slave labor.

I guess I buy into the illusion Apple no doubt intends to engender in its customers that their computers are being assembled at a hippie love-in at Haight-Ashbury. (Why else would they boldly print “Designed by Apple in California” on a card you are forced to look at as you’re taking the computer from the box, while relegating “Assembled in China” to 3-point type on the undercarriage?)

Sure the blueprints are coming from California, but c’mon Steve, it’s time to crank down the reality distortion field: Apple computers are MADE IN CHINA. It’s not just that Chinese products still carry the no-longer-accurate stigma of poor quality. China is a vacuum sucking up manufacturing jobs not just from the United States, but also from the countries like Mexico that had previously taken manufacturing jobs from the U.S.

Now I’m not draping myself in the flag here. I’m not about protectionism. But there are a host of problems that go along with choosing to move your operations to a place like China, and by buying the products of those operations, I’m buying into that choice, like it or not.

So… it’s a bittersweet day for me. I can’t help thinking about those workers in Apple’s factory in Shanghai, and wondering what their lives are like.