While most public discourse on electronics and waste focuses on discarding finished products, manufacturing computers and electronics also creates significant chemical waste.
Since its earliest days, the United States tech sector has been a major source of toxicant releases. Santa Clara county, home to what is today Silicon Valley, has the most EPA Superfund sites of any county in the US. Most of these sites are a legacy of computer and electronics manufacturing.
Silicon Valley is an iconic place associated with the tech sector, but computer and electronics manufacturing is a widely, albeit unevenly, distributed economic activity in the US. Data from the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) show the sector is responsible for a galaxy of chemical releases across the country.
Chemical releases from the industry have declined in the US over time, but that decline is largely a result of the industry’s production networks being moved overseas. Thus, even as the TRI data help make what might be invisible pollution more visible, the sector continues to expand and evolve its planetary distributions beyond the reach of the TRI records, but not beyond toxic effects on people and places elsewhere.
These maps and their data point to three primary issues in pollution and discard studies: 1) waste and wasting occur not only at the end point of discarding consumer items, but at multiple points along the manufacturing and supply chain. A focus on end-of-life rather than the entire life cycle can cause an analytical near-sightedness when it comes to understanding a sector’s waste impacts.
2) One of the primary methodological issues with doing studies on externalities is that they are rarely counted– they are made invisible by their very externalization. Using publicly available data in new ways can start to open up the otherwise hard-to-see infrastructure of waste and wasting.
3) The data we can find, especially on industrial waste, is always partial and always tells a partial story. Here, it looks like overall pollution is decreasing over time, but really it is just being moved in space. Other places do not have the same kind of reporting of emissions, so the shifted pollution is rendered invisible once again.