The real cost of our love of tech: the environment

The documentary Death by Design explores the environmental and labour safety costs of our digital devices
Filmmaker Sue Williams explores the environmental and labour costs of our obsession with devices. (Death by Design still)

Most of us likely know that the manufacture and disposal of our digital devices involves dealing with chemicals and toxic materials. However, we probably aren't aware of the scale - or the full environmental and workplace health costs of the billions of devices that are produced and discarded every year.

Filmmaker Sue Williams

Independent filmmaker Sue Williams explores this issue in her documentary Death By Design. The reality is that our devices are too often produced in under-regulated conditions, most notably in China. This is something Sue has witnessed firsthand making films in China for nearly 30 years.

"I've seen the environment change," she says. But it was through meeting leading Chinese environmental activist, Ma Jun, that she got interested in the toll of how our devices are made.

Environmentalist Ma Jun (Death by Design still)

"He took published government data on pollution violations across the country," she explains. "He found that a really large percentage of the violations were issued to electronics companies."

The sheer scale of production can be hard to imagine. "We're talking plants in the supply chain which are hundreds of thousands of workers," Sue says. "So just multiply that by all the manufacturers and all the suppliers."

 "Working in such a vast, impersonal place can be devastatingly lonely."- Sue Williams

When it comes to workplace health and safety, Sue looked at Foxconn, which makes electronics under contract to many technology companies, notably Apple.

"To make 10 million iPhones in three weeks, you need a very, kind of, militaristic workforce style," she argues. "They work long shifts, have short breaks, [and] they never really make friends...Working in such a vast impersonal place can be devastatingly lonely." The impact of working conditions has included suicides in the last number of years.

Our relentless upgrade culture is part of the problem too. Sue interviewed Kyle Wiens, founder of iFixit, a service that gives people the tools to repair their own devices.

Opening up an iPhone 5 for the film, Kyle points out Apple's proprietary screws. "This is a security screw that Apple designed to keep people out of the phone," he explains. He points out that phone batteries usually need to be changed every year or two. What Apple is doing, he argues, "is building the batteries into the phone and using the proprietary screws on there in an attempt to limit the lifespan of the phone to about 18 months."

Ultimately though, we bear some individual responsibility for our upgrades. "Is really that little microprocessor bump...really worth upgrading for?" Sue asks. "Don't upgrade just because the ads are sexy and you think it's a status symbol."  

Death By Design appeared as part of the Planet in Focus film festival in Toronto.

If you are looking for resources for where to safely recycle your used electronics, Government Services Canada links to this site, which has information for most parts of Canada.


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