Spoerl Lecture series opens with “High Tech Trash

Bridget Donnelly

As part of the Barbara Gray Spoerl Lectures in Science and Society series, Lawrence hosted Elizabeth Grossman Wednesday, Jan. 26. Grossman delivered a talk titled “High Tech Trash: The E-Waste Explosion and What We Can Do About It.”
The Spoerl lectures are held in conjunction with the environmental studies department’s Symposium on Environmental Topics course. This course centers on a particular theme each year, allowing students the opportunity to interact with experts in a particular area.
Associate Professor of Geology and Chair of the Environmental Studies Department Jeffrey Clark explained that this year’s focus is on waste, particularly solid waste.
Clark introduced Grossman, author of the books “High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics and Human Health” and “Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health and the Promise of Green Chemistry,” among others.
Clark praised Grossman for her “ability to identify key issues before they really hit the mainstream,” pointing out that, as “High Tech Trash” was published in 2006, it preceded some of the more predominant technologies in our society, citing iPhones and iPads as an example and providing statistics for how widespread such devices have become in the past few years.
Grossman focused her talk on “High Tech Trash,” explaining that she wished in her book to track the “environmental and health impacts of the entire life cycle of these products.”
Although her book was published in 2006, Grossman stressed the contemporary importance of the issues she raised.
Said Grossman, “In the space of this time, we [have] actually made a huge amount of progress in some areas,” but that technologies are continually redeveloped and replaced so quickly that we are going through them on a much larger scale. She cited that Americans now own over 3 billion high tech devices, up from around 2 billion in 2006.
Grossman cited examples from her book, pointing out that she is particularly interested in discovering what we can learn about society based on their attitudes towards waste and their ways of dealing with it.
One of the most pressing issues Grossman spoke about was the outsourcing of high tech recycling to countries that use primitive and often dangerous methods that leave large amounts of hazardous materials in the environment.
In 2008, stated Grossman, the EPA estimated that of more than 3 million tons of “e-waste” in the U.S., 85 percent ended up in landfills, some of which waste is “acutely hazardous.” Of the remaining 15 percent, half is sent overseas. At this point, there is little legislation regarding this type of outsourcing.
Near the end of her talk, Grossman posed a question to the audience, asking what happens to old computers at Lawrence. A student responded that, after cycling through various departments on campus, computers are sent to a recycling facility in northern Wisconsin.
Grossman noted that, in the course of her research, she discovered that universities are frequently unaware of where their high tech devices are sent for recycling. She stressed the importance of investigating recycling facilities to determine what interests they have at stake.
Before concluding, Grossman expressed her wish that “it should be as easy to recycle a computer as it is to buy one.”
Although we may not be able to completely eliminate the problems posed by high tech waste, steps can be taken such as trying to make them last longer, fixing them ourselves, asking manufacturers to provide longer warranties and trying to use less toxic materials and processes. Many major manufacturers are already taking steps in this direction, according to Grossman.
Early in the talk, Grossman pointed out, “I am not anti-technology.” Rather, she feels that the technologies that are posing such hazards are really the keys to helping us solve problems on a much larger and faster scale than ever before.
“I would venture to say,” said Grossman, “that the majority of those problems. can be solved using science and technology.