As we head into the season of giving and receiving, the focal question of the documentary Death by Design: The Dirty Secret of Our Digital Addiction: Where do our phones and other devices come from, and where do they go when they die? Death by Design tackles these questions in an important and revealing award-winning documentary by filmmaker Sue Williams. The film moves from California to China, New York to Ireland and Germany. It analyzes the environmental impact of the components of digital devices, addresses labor issues and pollution in the production process, and documents e-waste “recycling.” It also visits sites where personal computers were made in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, many of which are now Superfund sites and have been linked to cancer, lead poisoning, and other illnesses. Though it contains much information that is depressing, Death by Design points out some manufacturers who are attempting to create digital devices using more sustainable and just practices.
Death by Design brings up the important point that we think of the world wide web as a “green” invention, keeping us from having to print and distribute paper copies of everything, and yet the devices we use for accessing the Internets are anything but “green.” Silicon Valley is home to at least 23 Superfund sites in the wake of the tech boom of IBM, HP, and others, and the land will require centuries of cleanup. Meanwhile, newer tech companies (such as Google) sometimes build offices on these sites, unaware of their history, as chemicals continue to leach into ground water and air.
China provides workers lower environmental standards, and in this film, factory workers discuss working seven days a week with few breaks. These workers experience high rates of depression and suicide. Lax pollution standards coupled with practices such as running tap water through a waste line when inspectors arrive results in poor air and water quality, making over 60% of China’s groundwater no longer potable. Even when factories are caught in this kind of deception, the fine is cheaper than it would be to fix the problem.
Meanwhile, companies that create our devices intentionally design them to break, and some such as Apple make it nearly impossible to fix the devices without specialized tools.
On the positive side, a company called IFIXIT sells repair guides and knock-off versions of proprietary tools. We are introduced to the owners of iameco (see a video about their computers made from recyclable and natural components), a company based in Ireland that is creating devices using wood and more natural, recyclable components. Death by Design’s website offers information and ideas about how and where you can recycle your e-waste, such as an e-cycling quiz, maps, and ways to fix, lengthen the life of, and donate or sell your electronics.
With our culture’s heavy reliance on digital devices (I am using a laptop now to type this review), it’s important to make ourselves face into the dirty and dangerous life cycles of these gadgets, and make responsible choices when we purchase and dispose of them. This film offers a comprehensive view of the problems as well as pointing to solutions. I encourage you to watch Death by Design on Amazon or iTunes. You can also host a screening or purchase the rights to watch it in a class or with a community group through Bullfrog Films.