You are probably reading this article on your laptop, tablet or smartphone. Consumers now live off IT devices. The digital revolution had a massive impact on how we live and communicate. We all know how attached we are to our devices and that this could become a vice. What you probably do not know is that this revolution has a even darker side. Death by Design reveals the dirty secrets of our digital addiction.
Director Sue Williams challenges the notion that electronics is a “clean” industry by investigating a number of environmental and health catastrophes caused by production of our beloved gadgets. From early poisonous practices in Silicon Valley to China’s ongoing dumping of chemicals, this secret cannot be hidden anymore. The process of fabricating electronic devices is dirty and dangerous.
Big corporations like IBM, Apple, Hewlett Packard, Intel, Microsoft and Google, which have their headquarters in Silicon Valley (in California, US), have caused widespread environmental damage, having often exposed their workers to toxic substances, particularly hard metals (such as mercury, benzene, cadmium and lead).
The film investigates the former IBM workers who went to court about “cancer duster” in early 1990s. People started to get sick in California because they were exposed to lead. As an inhabitant of California states in the film: “Workers were dressed to protect the products, not people”, referring to chemical protective clothing. The court decision favoured the workers and IBM paid a compensation to their families. Big corporations prefer to be fined rather than addressing the root of the problem, as the indemnity is often just a slap on the wrist.
With more strict labour legislation in place in developed countries, the large corporations to outsource their services to countries with more lax laws, thereby keeping their hands “clean”. China is often their preferred location.
One of the largest Apple suppliers, Foxconn, is located on the banks of Yangtze river. A 23-year-old female worker for Apple supplier explains: “There is a lot of pressure. If a tiny mistake goes down the line, our boss really swears at us. Once I told the supervisor I didn’t want to work overtime. He said there weren’t enough people on the assembly line. He wouldn’t let me leave. I had to stay. It’s really too long, you get so tired.”
Driven by high demand, factories across the electronics supply chain often ignore basic worker safety. This explains recurring accidents and explosions, often killing hundreds and injuring many more. There were two explosions in Foxconn in just six months. Workers’ pay is so low that labour barely makes up for 1% of the cost of your average smartphone.
Recycling is also very dangerous and hazardous for workers. People handle hard metals from your disposed smartphone with hardly any protection in the Guiyu e-waste recycling. And it’s not just people that suffer. The ruthless IT industry is also taking its toll on the environment, as 20% of arable land in China is already contaminated with highly toxic heavy metals.
There is still light in the end of the tunnel. Death by Design reveals that there are new business focused on sustainability. It is the case of iFIXIT, a private company in San Luis Obispo, California, that sells repair parts and publish free online repair guides for consumer electronics.
And you can do your part, too. Visit the film’s official page and learn how to maximise the lifespan of your gadgets, and locate a recycling center near you. The map includes Canada, Mexico, Republic of Korea, United Kingdom and United States. Just click here for more information.