[Rogers], too, addresses obsolescence’s worst form of fallout, e-waste, and provides some arresting numbers: In 2004, “about 315 million working PCs were retired in North America.” Most went “straight to the trash heap.” As did more than 100 million cell phones in 2005, creating 50,000 tons of e-waste. These all add up to a “toxic time bomb,” . . .
How did we come to this almost surreal conjuncture? The first phase involved “psychological obsolescence,” the carefully choreographed arousal of dissatisfaction with the old and irrepressible desire for the new and fashionable. It didn’t take carmakers long to discover that cosmetic changes induced consumers to “trade up for style, not just for technological improvements, long before their old cars wore out.” The fashion imperative, the need to have the latest thing, has worked with any number of products over the years. Slade relates amazing lore regarding the success of disposable razors, the invention of the wristwatch, the cutthroat battle for the radio market and the advent of the calculator, the gadget that jump-started the electronics revolution.
. . . Even more alarming is [Grossman’s] expose of the troubles associated with polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, synthetic chemical compounds found in flame retardants used in TVs, computers and phones. PBDEs do not remain locked up in these objects, but instead drift into the air and infiltrate the living world. They are in our food and our bodies, and their ill effects can be drastic.
Finally, Grossman offers her perspective on the horrors of e-waste shipped in massive quantities to India, Nigeria, Pakistan and China, where children, women and men bereft of protective clothing and proper tools break apart our discarded electronics by hand. These exploited laborers are exposed, at grave risk, to permanent biological toxic substances, poisons that also flow unchecked into rivers and seas and the air we breath.
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