The average lifespan of a cell phone is 18 months, not because that is actually how long the phone will last, it is because that is how long carrier plans are; sign up for a new plan and get a new phone.
The average lifespan of a computer in the United States is about two years. In developing countries like India, it is five, and quickly approaching three. Consider the amount of people in the world. Consider how many computers there are on the planet as well as the number of cell phones: There are more than a billion cell phones and billions of computers. Where do they all go when they die?
They end up largely in the developing world where environmental standards are low and the opportunity to get paid a fee for refuse is very much wanted. About 80% of the computers and cell phones in the U.S. are shipped overseas to poor countries. Here's why: It would cost a computer company in the U.S. $20 to recycle a computer to domestic environmental standards. But this same company can offload an old computer to a Third World recycler for about $15, netting a profit of $35. Meanwhile, the Third World recycling outfits rip apart components without regard to the heavy metals they contain and often burn what's left over. This creates a toxic waft and pile-up that is threatening to suffocate developing nations.
"There is an ugly underbelly of economic globalization that few wish to talk about. Under the guise of simply utilizing the 'competitive advantage' of cheap labor markets in poorer areas of the world, a disproportionate burden of toxic waste, dangerous products, and polluting technologies are currently being exported from rich industrialized countries to poorer developing countries," the Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based nonprofit, writes.
I write about this in my book, You Are Here, and it occurred to me yesterday, when I took my laptop in for repair, the significance of holding on to my computer as long as I can. The dealer asked me, "Why not just buy a new one?"
Sure, computers are relatively inexpensive these days, so much so that it is often less expensive to buy a brand new one than to fix an old one. I must admit I was even tempted: the looks of those sleek units sitting on shelves was coaxing. But I knew better. See, I had visited those toxic waste dumps of computers in Third World countries and the images still haunt.
Here's an excerpt from my travels to Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia:
"The outer buildings are where the shops are. There, rag pickers come with piles of different things wrapped in keg sized burlap sacks or webbed plastic. They sell the junk contents to the slum owners. Light sockets. Paint buckets. Oil drums. Plastic bags. Cardboard. Computers. Plastic cups. Plastic plates. Plastic bottles. Glass of every shape and size. Detergent bottles. Pots. Pans. Soaps. Liquids. Clothes. Dishes. Smoke alarms. Almost anything you can think of ends up here.
"Next, workers separate the good stuff from the bad stuff and clean it. The whole bunch then gets put into the reprocessing cycle out of which comes new material. The material is then sold to corporations out of which new products are made...and sold to, well, us.
"Belts, wristwatch straps, and wallets are big exports from Dharavi.
"The first stop on this miraculous tour was the computer shop. Stacks of desktops pile high against a wall outside. A worker takes the housing off the monitor and brings it inside to other workers at a shredder. The dust flies as the plastic cases are chopped into pieces. These pieces are then put into a press and rolled together. After that, they are burned, smelted, and put through a sort of colander, or one of those PlayDough-like pieces that produces strings of material. The plastic strings are then dried and sliced into pellets. Those pellets are sold to companies that use them to make new computer cases, or other products such as toys.
"'They sell without regard to the toxins,' [Dr. Kishore Wankhade, regional coordinator for the NGO Toxics Link in Mumbai] later informs me when I ask him about the plastic products made in Dharavi. 'Sometimes the companies will mix that plastic with virgin plastic to lower their production costs. No one knows. They are able to skirt regulations and toxic standards this way. Or else they just go ahead and make new toys of it, even with all that lead, and sell them on the informal market.'
"Mattel, as was widely reported, got into a heap of trouble for selling toys in the US that had traces of toxins in them. This was a small amount and an aberration. But on the informal market, a market of cheap goods that caters to poor people, those who cannot afford brand-name toys or goods, the practice of using tainted materials is rampant, Kishore says.
"I'm shocked to see the whole computer disassembling occur before my eyes. It's one of the things I yearned to learn more about on my trip to India. I never thought I'd get to see the process up close and personal.
"The toxic dust, the lead, mercury, and other materials are laid to the side to decompose. When plastic decomposes, remember, it emits that array of toxins and dioxins into the air that cause all sorts of diseases and health hazards."
That's why I am happy indeed to peck away on my dinosaur of a Dell computer. I don't want it to land into the hands of people who can ill-afford to deal with it properly.
Tomorrow I trace the butterfly effect of the common things we do in our everyday lives, perhaps giving us ideas on how to direct the ripples to make for a better planet.