New gadgets wreck the environment

Greenpeace report finds our love of gadgets is costing the earth.

Greenpeace has revealed the unsavoury cost that building the latest gadgets has on the environment, claiming many of the factories where components are built are producing hazardous waste fed directly into water systems.

The environmental body's report "Cutting Edge Contamination: A study of environmental pollution during the manufacture of electronic products" documents how many water samples taken from around these plants showed levels of toxic substances that were many times higher than health bodies recommended.

"Over recent years we have seen an increasing concern over the use of hazardous chemicals in electronic products but attention has focussed on the contamination released during disposal or 'recycling of electronic waste'," said Dr. Kevin Brigden from the Greenpeace Research Laboratories. "Our findings of contamination arising during the manufacturing stage make it clear that only when we factor in the complete life cycle will the full environmental costs of electronic devices begin to emerge."

Samples were taken from industrial parks in China, Mexico, the Philippines and Thailand, where much of the printed wiring board (PWB) and semiconductor chip manufacture, and component assembly for consumer tech products is done.

Most sites revealed evidence of contamination by polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a group of brominated chemicals used as flame retardants, and phthalates, chemicals used in a wide range processes and materials.

The semiconductor industry in particular revealed groundwater contaminated with toxic chlorinated volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) and toxic metals including nickel. Samples taken from semiconductor facilities were higher than World Health Organisation (WHO) limits for drinking water and 70 times above the US limits for drinking water. Yet contaminated groundwater is very likely find its way into the water used by local communities for drinking and washing.

IBM was highlighted as one company whose manufacturing partner was guilty of polluting the environment with toxic waste water, acting outside of its own guidelines on the environment.

"IBM should act upon our findings and investigate activities at the site in order to prevent any releases of persistent organic compounds from the Guadalajara site," said Zeina Alhajj, Toxics Campaigner, Greenpeace International.

IBM said in a statement: "The first time that IBM heard from Greenpeace International about this matter was Monday, February 5, 2007, when we were told that Greenpeace had taken samples of water from open channels running through the Guadalajara Technology Campus in June 2006. Two days later, on February 7, 2007, IBM wrote to Greenpeace to explain that the chemicals allegedly found in those channels by Greenpeace are not related to IBM, nor to the best of our knowledge, tenants at the Guadalajara Technology Campus. IBM would be glad to meet with Greenpeace International officials at their earliest convenience to discuss this matter."

Indeed, deducing which manufacturers were linked with which of the big brands many of us buy our computers from is far from straightforward.

"There is shockingly little information on precisely which major brand companies are supplied by which manufacturing facilities," said Alhajj. "Responsibility for the contamination lies as much with those brands as with the facilities themselves ... There has to be full transparency regarding the supply chain within the electronics industry, so that brand owners are forced to take responsibility for the environmental impacts of producing their goods."

The full report is available from the Greenpeace website.

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