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Working Group: Computers + the Environment

April 30, 2001

Cover sheet for submission to CPSR Essay Contest

Title: Silicon Valley: The Solution to American Economic Malaise or the "Valley of Toxic Fright"?

Abstract: Details the cultural obsession with computers and "high technology" and the resulting environmental problems. Discusses the historical and present-day environmental problems of the computer industry on Silicon Valley and on the planet in general. Discusses some potential solutions—including reduction of consumerism, voluntary simplicity, extended producer responsibility, increased recycling and buy-back of end products, Pigovian taxes ("green taxes"), and non-hierarchal-based work organizations.

Note: student author and faculty sponsor are both current CPSR members.

Author Name: James Sheldon

Address: Crown College, UCSC 400 McLaughlin Dr Santa Cruz CA 95064

Phone Number: 831-423-0785


School Affiliation: University of California, Santa Cruz

Status: undergraduate

Sponsor name: Dr. Linda L. Werner


Jack Baskin Engineering

University of California, Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz, CA 95064

Phone #: 831.427.2076



Silicon Valley:

The Solution to American Economic Malaise

or the "Valley of Toxic Fright"?

Cover picture courtesy of Recycling Council of Ontario

Originally written for Crown 80, Section 14, Professor Pandey, December 2, 1999

Revised April 30, 2001


Silicon Valley. The land of riches and of millionaires. The archetype of the California Dream. This is the promise and the dream of technology. Mandel suggests that "Silicon Valley has joined the pantheon of mythic places—the first addition in more than fifty years" (285). A female engineer at Hewlett Packard states that "When [she] moved here, there were orchards all around, and now there are integrated-circuit manufacturing plants all around… that’s been the thrill, because I’ve been a part of it, and it’s the most exciting time in the history of the world, I think. And the center of it is here in Silicon Valley" (Stacey 292).

A computer is rapidly becoming almost as common as a telephone or a television. It is seen as a sign of progress, development, and advance. According to Douglas Andrey, director of information systems of the Semiconductor Industry Association, "the chip industry is the pivotal driver of the world economy" (Byster/Smith). It is more than that… it is a cultural phenomenon. It is cool to have a computer. Every kid wants one—two—or more. Everyone these days seems to be walking around with a Palm Pilot, a pager, a cell phone, and a laptop. Friends send instant messages to each other on their cell phones. High tech and popular culture are almost one and the same. In "The High Cost of High Tech", Siegel and Markoff write that "A few years ago, Steve Wozniak, the designer of the Apple II computer, struck a fusion between technology and youth culture by sponsoring the elaborate ‘US’ festival in Southern California to celebrate both rock music and personal computers" (186).

Yet there is a side to the computer that most people don’t see. When you go to buy a computer at Fry’s or Comp-USA, you rarely, if ever, think about what will happen to the computer when you are done with it. When you buy the Pentium III with 512 MB of RAM, a 40GB hard drive, and 52x CDROM it is hard to imagine it ever becoming obsolete. Yet in two years, it is a piece of junk. And most of this goes into landfills. One computer user writes that she has "discovered that they are excellent at collecting dust and holding up bags of rice, but other than that… [she is]… at a loss to know where to unload this stuff" (USA Today, Jun 99). Despite 11% of the personal computers being recycled, "by the year 2004, experts estimate that we will have over 315 million obsolete computers in the US… this adds up to about 1.2 billion pounds of lead" (

And what’s more, the manufacturing process through which the chips in the computer undergo is highly toxic, involving many chemicals that are poisonous and carcinogenic. The high tech industry is "one of the most chemical-intensive industries ever conceived" (Byster/Smith). "Printed circuit boards contain heavy metals such as Antimony, Silver, Chromium, Zinc, Lead, Tin and Copper. According to some estimates there is hardly any other product for which the sum of the environmental impacts of raw material, extraction, industrial, refining, and production, use and disposal is so extensive as for printed circuit boards" ( Toxic chemicals are needed as etchants and huge amounts of water are needed to clean the chips in between each step of the process because even a single particle can be enough to disrupt the electrical pathway—say, by taking the place of a critical transistor in the design. Producing just one six-inch silicon wafer takes the following resources: 2,275 gallons of deionized water, 3,200 cubic feet of bulk gases, 22 cubic feet of hazardous gases, 20 pounds of chemicals, and 285 kilowatt hours of electrical power (Electronic Industry Good Neighbor Campaign, 19). Multiply by the number of chips we are producing in the Valley, and the impact on the planet and on humans is almost unimaginable.

The Swedish Secretary of State, Mans Lonnroth, asserts that "the product developers of electronic products are introducing chemicals on a scale which is totally incompatible with the scant knowledge of their environmental or biological characteristics." ( According to Byster, "toxicity information is unavailable for more than half of the chemical substances in commercial use." We may be performing an experiment on our humans with these highly toxic chemicals. 10 of 36 plants in California’s Silicon Valley were cited for health and safety shortfalls between 1993 and 1997 (USA Today Tech Report, Jan 99). This situation is a far cry from the "clean, white-collar industry" hoped for by high-tech visionaries (Sachs).

Present-day pollution, resource consumption, and waste are not the only problems. The area is still suffering from the effects of Silicon Valley’s beginnings. Like the pollution in San Francisco Bay that remains from the Gold Rush, much of the pollution in Silicon Valley still remains from its early beginnings. Silicon Valley is home to 29 Superfund sites—sites that have been identified by the EPA as toxic sites that receive a high cleanup priority (Byster/Smith, USA Today Tech Report, Sachs, Hayhurst). This is more Superfund sites than any other area of the country.

Stacey notes, "As cancer rates and birth defects in the country rose alarmingly, outraged residents discovered that their water supply had been contaminated by more than one hundred industrial chemicals that were known or suspected to be carcinogens, mutagens, or teratogens" (296). The Superfund sites in Silicon Valley are still tainted with trichloroethylene, a solvent/etchant once widely used to clean chips (USA Today Tech Report 1/26/99). Sachs, in "Virtual ecology: a brief environmental history of Silicon Valley" writes:

Countless poisoned wells, leaking chemical tanks, and illegal sludge dumps have been discovered in the past 15 years. The underground plume of pollution from one IBM facility extends for three miles and has shut down 17 public wells. In some cases, even the most sophisticated cleanup methods have had only partial success; when trichloroethylene (TCE), for instance, has had time to settle into an aquifer, there is no known method by which it can be completely removed.

With cancerous materials in our water, air, and aquifers, one might ask why nothing is being done. Actually, the computer industry has been working on these problems for a number of years. Quite a few improvements have been made. Hayhurst acknowledges that "most companies have detoxified their operations enough to comply with government regulations, substituting environmentally friendly soap and water and citrus juices for some of the nastiest chemical solvents, and eliminating most ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) from the production process (19). The Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group states that:

Despite the stunning growth in economic activity in recent years, the environmental impact from manufacturing operations in Silicon Valley has lessened steadily. Three primary reasons account for this progress: government regulations with which industry must comply; continuous improvement of industry practices voluntarily adopted by Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group member companies; and industry research which led to improved technology (

But still, many people feel otherwise. The increased growth of the industry may be exacerbating already existing problems and the tremendous growth in production means there has been a net gain in pollutants released. Even if the industry has improved, the damage has already been done. Government regulations are not always followed. Siegel and Markoff point out that "despite the vigorous enforcement of environmental regulations, numerous firms routinely pour toxic wastes down the drain" (188). Meeting government regulations is most certainly not enough—especially since they are all too often written by corporate lobbyists. According to Paul Hawken, author of the Ecology of Commerce:

Washington, D.C., has become a town of appearances and images, where sleight of (political) hand has largely replaced the clumsy system of payoffs, outright bribes and backroom deals of old. Sleaze has not disappeared—over four hundred members of the Reagan administration were indicted or charged with criminal conduct, including influence peddling, conflict of interest, and perjury—but sleaze has been supplanted by a pervasive atmosphere in which, unless you have money, unless you control blocks of votes and deliver some form of power, your voice is a whisper. One percent of American society owns nearly 60 percent of corporate equities and about 40 percent of the total wealth in this nation. These are the plutocrats who wield the power and control this preeminent "company town" while trying to convince the other 99 percent of the citizenry that the system works in our best interests, too. (111)

Politicians clamor for high tech attention, votes, and money. Deregulation, capitol gains taxes, tort reform, Netday—the list of favors to Silicon Valley by politicians goes on and on. Siegel and Markoff report that "Rising Democratic + Republican politicians promise to create a better investment climate for high tech industry. Until the company’s misfortunes mounted, it was chic to be labeled an ‘Atari Democrat’" (186).

A more comprehensive solution to address these problems must involve several aspects—reduction or elimination in toxins in production, comprehensive examination of all of the negative aspects of the technology, and a plan to deal with the disposal and recycling of the outdated technology.

One area to concentrate on would be the reduction of the consumerist, materialistic attitudes in the United States. Reduction of consumerist and materialistic attitudes clearly is a difficult route given that it involves changing what many people see as an American as well as a worldwide cultural phenomenon. It would involve moving to a new value system and way of thinking. Also, consumerism is inherently linked to the system of capitalism that we have in place. Focusing on consumerism also places most of the "blame" for the problems on the individual consumer rather than on the corporate structure. Working on this issue would involve education and other efforts to make people aware of what they are buying, and to realize that they really do not need much of what they buy—especially in the technological realm. It would involve consumers learning to associate products with the processes by which they are made, and learning about the ultimate fate of the goods that they throw in the trash.

Many people have been organizing efforts to reduce consumerism. For example, The Buy Nothing Day (day after thanksgiving) campaign and voluntary simplicity movement are both attempts to bring awareness to the American tendency to overconsume and to buy unnecessary "stuff" as if the point of life is making money and buying, buying, and buying. "He who dies with the ‘most stuff’ wins," might be the American motto.

Ultimately, however, it is the corporations and businesses that need to change. Change must come from within. Government can only go so far—some change must come from business itself. Such changes should include setting goals of phasing out all carcinogens and toxic chemicals from the manufacturing process. It should also include creating a buy-back program for old computer hardware and putting significant effort into building recycling facilities.

One promising concept is that of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). This is a major component of the proposed European Union Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE). EPR involves being responsible for both the effects of producing one’s product as well as the effects downstream from the product—whether it is trash, waste, pollution, or whatever. Companies should be willing to take back or buy back old products and also to phase out the toxic chemicals.

Innovative programs like recycling, finding replacements for toxic chemicals, or EPR could also be encouraged by government incentives such as selective taxes or tax credits. One such approach is the Pigou taxes, promoted by the English Economist A.C. Pigou in 1920, which reflect the true costs on the planet of environmental damage by imposing taxes that would then presumably be passed onto the customer. Ultimately, the goal is to have the prices that consumers pay reflect the costs on the environment. For example, right now recycled paper usually costs more in stores, while paper from old-growth trees costs less. Under Pigou’s system, the recycled paper will be cheaper and the paper from old-growth trees will be much more expensive, reflecting the true cost to the planet in the prices.

This same idea could be applied to computers. The computer made from non-toxic, recycled materials would thus be less expensive than the one from toxic chemicals and non-recycled materials. And this would be done without complicated regulations through tax policies.

Another interesting idea would be to consider replacing the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a major indicator of economic success, with an an indicator called the International Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW) index. This would take into account other factors, such as quality of life, when measuring a country’s progress. (Friends of the Earth). The Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group Environmental Committee, ironically, sums up the situation best: "It is no longer enough to just produce a profit. Instead, we need to continually improve our manufacturing process, thereby reducing our burden on the environment and becoming an asset to the communities in which we live and work." (

Another concept that looks promising is Daniel Quinn’s idea of tribal businesses that are organized in a non-hierarchical, non-wage fashion. These have a side effect of being less environmentally harmful and less destructive. His argument involves the idea that we are living in ways that are inherently unsustainable due to a set of cultural mythology and memes (ideas that are passed from generation to generation as if by genes) that tell humans that they are supposed to rule the world and dominate it.

In summary, change must come from three areas—consumers, government, and corporations. People must wake up and realize that technology—for all the good it has done our society—has many negative aspects. We cannot enter the new millennium by using the vehicles of our dreams—computers and technology--to destroy our dreams by destroying the very earth we live on, the very air we breathe, and the very water we drink. Until we come to this realization, things will only get worse. But once society realizes the truths and what must be done, things will change for the better. It will not happen overnight. These realizations will instead move from one person to two people to four people to eight people and spread throughout the world. Daniel Quinn sums it eloquently on his website:

And that's how the world is going to be saved. Each of us must become an agent of change within the range of our own influence, and it doesn't matter how great that range is. If you can't reach a hundred then reach ten, and if you can't reach ten, then reach one, because you never know -- that one may reach a million! (


Works Cited

Byster, Leslie; Smith, Ted. "High Tech and Toxic." Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy v14, n1 (Spring, 1999): 69-76.

"Dirty Secrets of the Chipmaking Industry." USA Today Tech Report 1/26/99.

Electronic Industry Good Neighbor Campaign. Sacred waters: the life-blood of mother earth. Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, 1997. 19.

Friends of the Earth. "Measuring Progress: Replacing GDP." <>

Hawken, Paul. The Ecology of Commerce: a declaration of sustainability. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1993.

Hayhurst, Chris. "Toxic technology: electronics and the Silicon Valley." E v8, n3 (May-June, 1997.) 19-25.

Mandel, Michael. "Taking Its Place in the Pantheon." Business Week 18 Aug 1997. 76

Quinn, Daniel. "A Dialogue About ‘What to Do.’" <>

Sachs, Aaron. "Virtual ecology: a brief environmental history of Silicon Valley." World Watch v12, n1 (Jan-Feb 1999): 12.

Siegel, Lenny and John Markoff. "The High Cost of High Tech: The Dark Side of The Chip." New York: Harper & Row, 1985. Rpt in Crown Core Course Reader. Ed. Judith A. Habicht-Mauche. Santa Cruz, CA: UCSC Copy Center, 1999. 183-191.

Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group. "Silicon Valley Industry Environmental Report." <>

Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. "E-Waste Background." November 7, 1999. <>

Stacey, Judith. "Land of Dreams and Disasters: Postindustrial Living in the Silicon Valley." California Dreams and Realities. Ed. Sonia Maasik, Jack Solomon. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. 292-300.

"USA sitting on mountain of obsolete PCs", USA Today, June 22, 1999.

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