Saturday, July 4, 2009

ELECTRONICS: Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?

I know electronics are environmental hazards. I hear stories about the problems of recycling monitors, and other electronic devices. If they're too full of hazardous materials for the landfill, that means there's something toxic that can break down and get into the groundwater table or the soil. It means difficulty to safely recycle or reuse, and exposure for workers. Etc.

Greenpeace just published a Guide to Greener Electronics. It ranks the various manufacturers based on several items. Toxicity is most important and double-weighted. They look at the inclusion of polyvinyl plastics, and brominated flame retardents (apparently the bad boy of electronic toxics). Greenpeace also checks to see whether the companies have scheduled phase outs of phthalates, beryllium, including alloys and compounds and antimony/antimony compounds.

OK. FYI, I don't know what all of these compounds are. Sigh. If you're a scientist type and want it in scientific lingo that I can't follow, look here: Otherwise, for the rest of us, here is a little info:

Brominated Flame Retardants [BFR]: A wide range of brominated chemicals added to materials to inhibit ignition and slow the rate of combustion. Several BFRs have known toxic properties, do not easily break down in the environment, and may bioaccumulate (build up in animals and humans). BFR pollution is now widespread, with the highest concentrations in the atmosphere and rivers close to urban and industrialised areas. BFRs are released during manufacture, use and disposal. Their presence in household dust increases human exposure. (Summarized from Greenpeace website,

Polyvinyl Chloride (Vinyl or PVC): Of all the plastics, PVC plastic or vinyl is the most environmentally damaging. Throughout its lifecycle it requires hazardous chemicals for production, releases harmful additives and creates toxic wastes - particularly dioxins. "Dioxins" is a descriptive word for several related chemical compounds, all of which are toxic to some degree. Dioxins accumulate in fatty tissues over time, and exposures may eventually reach dangerous levels. The EPA reported that dioxins may be a carcinogen, as well as causing other biological problems such as reproduction and sexual development, and immune system issues. (Summarized from Greenpeace website, and Wikipedia, Funny - I won't let my students use Wikipedia as a reference! Expediency is the mother of all short-cuts.

And a short explanation for the others:

Phthalates: an additive to PVC that makes it more flexible. Its toxicity is disputed by the chemical industry,, but alternatives to PVC should make that debate a non-issue.

Beryllium: A metal found naturally in coal, some rocks, volcanic matter, etc. Exposure can result in irreversable and sometimes fatal lung scarring,

Antimony/antimony compounds: A semi-metallic (whatever that means) chemical, used in the manufacturing of certain types of semi-conductor and other devices, Oh, maybe you need semi-metallics for semi-conductors, and full-metallic chemicals for full-conductors. Sorry. I couldn't help myself.

Greenpeace looks at other issues too. Does the firm have a take-back and recycle program for its equipment? What are they doing about climate change and their own carbon load? Greenpeace does not that its guide does not rank companies on labor standards or social responsibility.

VERDICT: (did you secretly come here first?)

Worst: Nintendo seems to be the out-and-out worst, with Microsoft, Lenovo (IBM) and Fujitsu doing only somewhat better. That's too bad, because I love Fujitsu products. Although this time around I bought a Dell.

Best: Nokia and Samsung are neck-in-neck the best, with Sony-Ericsson just behind.

But that doesn't do the report justice. Go to the website and look at the information laid out corporation by corporation. It's very telling.

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