Toxic Chips

A BBC article on the toxicity of semiconductor manufacture says that:

… weight for weight, the average computer chip does more harm to the environment than the car. … In order to produce one memory chip that weighs two grams, the total amount of materials and fossil fuels required to make that chip is 1,400 grams. That’s 700 times the weight of the original chip…

I knew semiconductor manufacturing was very toxic, but didn’t know it was this bad. However it would be much harder to account for the amount of resources computers save via:

– telecommuting
– digital photography (analog photos also extremely toxic)
– paperless office (hah! in theory*)
– what else?

Also it’s a red herring to only compare manufacture – try comparing the impact of daily use of cars and computers.

* I’m content not to print almost anything, but long ago accepted that many people do — I work with people who print out anything longer than a paragraph so they can “actually read it.”

Music: Don Byas :: A Night In Tunisia

21 Replies to “Toxic Chips”

  1. technology is not its own cure
    anymore than overeating is a cure
    for bulimia

  2. I dunno – sometimes you gotta spend resources to save more resources, just as you have to spend calories to gather food so you can eat.

  3. You allude to Life Cycle Analysis here, Scot. E.g. an electric kettle: minimal impact in manufacture but *massive* energy use during its lifetime.

    Good points about the benefits brought by computers, but you’re right: they contain some pretty nasty stuff. Apparently Apple are ahead of the game when it comes to using lead-free solder etc, before legislation (at least here in Europe) comes into force.

  4. I actually did know about the toxicity of computer manufacture. Of course, in addition to the point of manufacture vs. usage that you bring up, it’s also a little unfair to compare by weight, because your average computer is a *heck* of a lot lighter than your average car.

    However, one thing that this does give some impetus for is making your computers last longer. I’m trying to get to a point where I can buy a computer and have it last me for a number of years. In addition, I’m trying to find old or second-hand devices that will do what I need instead of the latest, shiniest thing. A good example was picking up an Apple emate to use to do my writing portably instead of trying to go for a laptop or a Palm with a keyboard. The emate performs fine for the task, and not only am I redirecting the machine away from the scrap yard, but I’m solving my computing problem without requiring them to make a new computer. I think that as technology races ahead of most people’s needs, we may see more reuse.

    It touches on an issue that I think about now and then — how much we tend to forget the *three* Rs of responsible waste management. Most people think only of recycling, but it’s actually, “Reduce, Recycle, Reuse.” You see some people trying to reduce, but not many, and you see very few scrambling to reuse.

  5. I think joshua’s comment gets at “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” in a really elegant way.

    I think Scot’s thing about using resources to save resources has a point, but it reminds me of “we had to destroy that village in order to save it”.

    IMHO, as long as capitalism continues to exist, corporations will be addicted to never-ending growth, which means the toxicity and environmental impact of human culture *taken as a whole* will continue to increase. Though specific improvements in tech may well lower the toxicity in one neighborhood, the aggregate resource use continues to increase. Solar power is a really excellent example of this — because a solar panel requires more energy to manufacture than it will produce in its lifetime, all it does is repackage energy from one form to another, in the process using toxic chemicals for the manufacturing, and deferring the problem to a different locale. Ditto hydrogen fuel cells, at least with current production methods.

    Remember, entropy always increases globally (though locally it may appear to decrease).

  6. Wha! What’s this about solar panels taking more energy to produce than the energy they save in production? I had not heard that (and Solar Dude sure didn’t mention it!)

  7. I don’t think that what I’m saying is analogous to “we had to bomb the village to save it.” I’m just saying that effort/energy/resources are required to save or make more effort/energy/resources.

    Put literally, if a person telecommutes for two years with a computer, saving, say, 20 miles of commuting per day, does the gas and pollution savings not eclipse the enviro impact of that computer’s manufacture? Then add in the trees saved by not printing, the streams not polluted by doing digital photography…

    My point is that despite the high up-front cost to the environment, there is still a net benefit. I can’t prove that of course. Naturally we would all like to decrease that up-front impact. But we’d also all like to have perpetual motion machines.

  8. I don’t have a source handy. I’ll look for one.
    Solar Dude didn’t mention it because it’s rarely thought about. But, basically, all the alternative energies have problems:

    Fuel cells: must extract hydrogen from water (requires power)

    Solar: expensive, toxic, mass numbers of panels increase earth’s reflectivity, which could alter climate

    Wind: expensive, seasonal, not a global solution, kill birds, large numbers affect climate

    Hydro: requires dams, which fuck up birds, fish, native peoples, people living downstream in earthquake-prone areas, and will only operate for 50 or so years before they silt up. OK, you can dredge, but at some point you use as much power dredging as the dam will produce.

    Biomass: requires very large land area full of burning and/or rotting organic matter, a huge NIMBY problem

    Even those nifty cute hybrid cars have a HUGE amount of electricity locked up in the production of their batteries. And where did that electricity come from? Probably coal or oil or hydro or nuclear.

    There are interesting other possibilities, like burning used tires for power, but the enviro lobby largely shuts down such things, as it did with nuclear in the ’70s. Europe has safe nuke plants, but that’s pretty much off the table in the USA (thanks Greens). To me, nuclear is the best solution until true fusion breeder reactors are invented, because it’s concentrated, plenty of fuel for a couple hundred years, etc. etc. Sure, it fucks up the planet, but it fucks up LESS of the planet than other energy forms.

  9. I have a feeling wind power might be much more efficient in this regard (no exotic silicon electronics needed). I know it’s half the cost to implement.

    Quick comparison of solar vs. wind vs. hydro:

    Can you define a “safe” nuclear plant? Would that be a plant that is somehow immune from catastrophic devastation to humans in the event of a bombing, earthquake, or meltdown? Would that be one that has magically solved the nuclear waste storage problem?

  10. cat, what do you mean by “entropy increases globally?” Is that statement of physics or metaphor? The entire history of civilization is one of ever more complex and refined systems working together, ever growing systems. All complex systems that grow more complex do so in violation of 2nd law of thermodynamics – this is the great mystery of systems theory.

    I think humans will be addicted to growth with or without capitalism. In fact, the equation may be turned on its head – perhaps capitalism exists *because* of our addiction to growth.

  11. Irfon, I think the phrase is “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” – reuse is more importan than recycle.

    I do think that the computer obsoletion cycle has been reduced and almost eliminated for general purpose computing (gamers, video editors etc will still be hungry for more). An average office machine today should be fast enough for the next decade or so – all detectable UI delay has been eliminated with modern CPUs.

  12. The business about solar panels requiring more energy to make than they will ever produce is, according to a recent article in Home Power (wherein they did the math to prove it) nonsense. I don’t have the article in front of me, but they debunked that claim thoroughly.

  13. Likewise, the myth of wind turbines killing birds has been debunked. Thankfully, birds are not all bird-brained.

  14. The argument that nuclear is more environmentally sound than solar or wind or biomass is absurd.

    The problems of nuclear waste are enormous. The equation is simple: more nuclear energy=more nuclear waste:

    “What?s to be done with 52,000 tons (47,000 metric tons) of dangerously radioactive spent fuel from commercial and defense nuclear reactors? With 91 million gallons (345 million liters) of high-level waste left over from plutonium processing, scores of tons of plutonium, more than half a million tons of depleted uranium, millions of cubic feet of contaminated tools, metal scraps, clothing, oils, solvents, and other waste? And with some 265 million tons (240 million metric tons) of tailings from milling uranium ore?less than half stabilized?littering landscapes?”

    And “during the next three decades, more than 350 nuclear reactors will be taken out of service. Yet more than 40 years after the first nuclear power plant started producing electricity the nuclear industry still has no answers on how to safely and cost effectively dismantle a reactor.”

    Low-level radiation is another problem:

    “The destructive efficiency of continuous internal low-level exposure may explain why women living near nuclear plants experience elevated breast cancer mortality. Dr. Gould, a statistician and Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, and Dr. Sternglass, Professor Emeritus of Radiology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, examined National Cancer Institute data.

    They found, for example, that the rate of breast cancer in those counties within 100 miles of a nuclear plant was 16% higher than the rate in other counties. This translates to over 17,000 excess deaths from breast cancer in the years 1985 to 1989.”

  15. >cat, what do you mean by “entropy increases globally?” Is that statement of physics or metaphor?

    Of physics. See below.

    >The entire history of civilization is one of ever more complex and refined systems working together, ever growing systems.


    >All complex systems that grow more complex do so in violation of 2nd law of thermodynamics – this is the great mystery of systems theory.

    No, no, no! There ARE no violations of the 2nd law of thermodynamics. It’s only a violation if you use the wrong frame of reference. That’s why I say entropy increases globally. We create order, but we do it by using energy (food, oil, wind, sun, etc). When you use energy, you are taking matter from an ordered state (lump of coal) to a disordered one (smoke, ash, dust, gases) and using some of the byproduct to “decrease” entropy in something else (wheels go around, something gets made). The important point is the increase in entropy of your fuel always more than makes up for the decrease in entropy caused by the work done.

    Matter (human brains) can reorganize itself to increase order, but always does so by increasing disorder in something else. The total of amount of disorder in the universe (entropy) always increases, no matter what. That’s The Law.

  16. “Thirty spokes converge on a hub
    but it’s the emptiness
    that makes a wheel work
    pots arefashioned from clay
    but it’s the hollow
    that makes a pot work
    windows and doors are carved for a house
    but it’s the spaces
    that make a house work
    existence makes something useful
    but nonexistence makes it work”
    –Lao-tzu, Taoteching, trans. Red Pine

  17. Cat, thanks for that. Now I realize/remember that the “mystery of systems theory” I alluded to is not the generation of reverse entropy (energy from nowhere) but rather self-organizing systems – information or order that creates itself, over and above any question of energy.

  18. joshua, thanks for the very apposite Sun Tzu quote.

    this site explains it all in technical terms much better than I could, with a really clear explanation of the link between the 2nd law and the flow of time:

  19. Joshua’s quote reminds me of Marduk and Tiamat, a very early dragonslaying myth, and one that underlies a lot of Judeo-Christian cosmology. That order-out-of-chaos and patriarchy-over-matriarchy are linked in this myth is NOT an accident!

    “Tiamat´s and Marduk´s Mystery was celebrated every year in Babylon especially during the New Year´s or the Akitu Festival, where Life was seen as the taming of primeval Chaos, a task that indeed never ends. The Mystery of the Fierce Dragoness and Her Valiant Opponent bring also to light the victory of the hero-centered consciousness represented by Marduk in opposition to the cyclical view of the world centered on communal values, where the collective took precedence over individualism. Marduk is the first heroic dragon-slayer in world history. Remember though that His glory was built upon the remains of Tiamat, to become the glory that was Babylon.”


    How did we get from toxic chips to here?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *