FROM the newest mobile phone and mp3 player to the most innovative laptop computer, Filipinos are never last with the latest trend in electronics.

Indeed, there is no question as to the benefits offered by technology. But apart from its use, other stages in an electronic product’s life cycle such as its manufacturing, recycling, and disposal entail impacts that could make one look at electronic gadgets differently.

Contrary to the “clean” image being projected by the high-technology industry, there are also serious health and environmental downsides involved, said Ted Smith, founder of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC).

Speaking at a forum last week, the responsible technology advocate explained that the production of electronic and computer parts contaminate air, land, and water across the globe. Poor working conditions in the manufacturing and hazards in the recycling and disposal of electronic equipment also pose danger to health. (See also the PCIJ’s 2003 report, “Second Life for Dead PCs.”)

What’s worrisome, he said, is that those who suffer these consequences are largely “the poor, female, immigrant, and minority.”

Health hazards

Smith said semiconductor workers in Silicon Valley in California in the U.S. experience illness rates three times higher than manufacturing workers in other industries. Based on epidemiological studies too, women who worked in fabrication rooms experience miscarriages at a rate 40 percent higher or more than non-manufacturing workers. Silicon Valley also has more Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund sites than any other area in the country.

These health hazards are not limited to the U.S. alone, pointed out Smith.

Due to cheap labor costs and weak occupational safeguards, developing countries — the Philippines included — are tapped by multinational companies, mostly American and Japanese, for middle- and low-end work such as the assembling of computer and other electronic parts.

The main concern here, Smith explained, is that some of the 1,000 chemicals used in computer production are toxic. Among these chemicals include:

  • Solvents to make chips, disk drives, and other parts
  • Lead and cadmium in circuit boards
  • Lead and barium in monitors
  • Brominated flame retardants on printed circuit boards, cables, and plastic casings
  • Poly-vinyl chloride (PVC) casings
  • Mercury switches and flat screens
  • Brominated flame retardant in plastics

In Taoyuan, Taiwan, for example, more than 1,000 former employees who used to make television sets and semiconductors for electronic company RCA are reportedly suffering from cancer. Also, more than 200 former RCA workers have reportedly died.

In Mexico and Bangkok, meanwhile, electronic manufacturing workers have also made protests and demanded companies like Hitachi and Intel to uphold labor rights.


Potential hazards in the electronic industry are not just confined within factories. These even extend up until the recycling and disposal of products.

Cell phones, for instance, have an average lifespan of 18 months while a personal computer is now pegged to last for only three to five years. These high rates of obsolescence plus the increasing number of cell phone and computer users (over one billion cell-phone users worldwide) are producing immense quantities of electronic waste (e-waste), making it the fastest growing component of the waste stream.

What’s more alarming, SVTC’s Smith said, is that e-waste is exported to less developed countries. The SVTC, along with the Basel Action Network (BAN), Greenpeace and other nongovernmental groups, has identified the U.S., Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the European Union as e-waste exporting countries.

Click here for a larger view of the map.

The U.S. is said to export 50 to 80 percent of its e-waste to Asian countries, namely, China, Thailand, Singapore, India, and Pakistan. Meanwhile, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Malaysia are suspected to be e-waste destinations too.

No quantitative data on volumes have been recorded due to the lack of a system for tracking legal or illegal (under international law) shipments of e-waste.

According to the groups, some e-waste are shipped as “working equipment” only to end up as waste upon arrival in the countries of destination.

Smith further said that around 300 million computers have become obsolete in 2004. These computers are made up of four billion pounds of plastic, one billion pounds of lead, 1.9 million pounds of cadmium, 1.2 million pounds of chromium and 400,000 pounds of mercury.

A 2005 study conducted by Greenpeace Southeast Asia warned that a host of toxic substances are released into the environment whenever e-waste end up in landfills and dirty recycling operations. This is said to create “a nightmare of pollution and grave worker and community exposure.”

Smith, who also authored the book “Challenging the Chip: Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry” urged that computer manufacturers use less hazardous materials in their products. He also encouraged these companies to take back obsolete computers through the Computer Take Back program.

As for consumers, Richard Gutierrez, executive director of Ban Toxics!, the Asia-Pacific office of the Basel Action Network, suggested that buyers look for computers that are compliant with the RoHS Directive, which stands for “the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment.”

RoHS-compliant products do not contain more than the agreed levels of lead, cadmium, mercury, and other chemicals and are therefore less harmful. (see also “The race for greener cell phones and PCs“)

Gutierrez also added that consumers should keep and not dispose of their old computers and share information on e-waste.

2 Responses to The bane of hi-tech waste



October 13th, 2008 at 3:06 pm

so, is there a proper way of disposing these e-wastes? i asked to one junk shop owner if he can accommodate my old computers. he readily said yes but made me hear that he doesn’t the bulky CRT’s…


Alecks P. Pabico

October 13th, 2008 at 4:20 pm

Yes, aikon32, there are ways to properly dispose e-waste. Don’t go to your neighborhood junk shop as it does not have the facility and the technical expertise to handle the toxic materials from discarded electronics.

One electronic recycler is HMR Philippines (which was featured in my report, Second Life for Dead PCs) which has a CRT crusher in its Sta. Rosa, Laguna facility.

The major malls also host monthly waste (including junk PCs) trade markets now. Check the malls for their schedules or contact the Philippine Business for the Environment at these numbers: 6353670/6352650 to 51.

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