Disegno #13

Death By Design

Santa Clara County

25 April 2017

“The electronics industry is really a chemical-waste-handling industry,” says Ted Smith, founder of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, in Sue William’s documentary Death by Design. The processes involved in etching printed circuit boards (PCBs) – manufacturing individual components, soldering them into place – for even the most mundane of electronic products, require a multitude of acids, solvents and metals. These must be handled and disposed of with care for the sake of the people manning the production lines as well as the wider environment.

Death by Design, however, is a film about the criminal lack of care shown by electronics companies in the supply chains of familiar brands such as Apple, IBM, Intel – and most others too, if the documentary is to be believed. The lm targets the consumer-electronics industry as a whole, aiming to make explicit the environmental and human costs behind our sleek and shiny devices. But in choosing such a broad target, Death by Design faces a challenge. How to avoid triggering compassion fatigue in the viewer? By now, most of us know that the products we consume – be
they clothes, cosmetics or electronics – frequently have inauspicious origins. The challenge is to informatively advocate for change without hectoring or falling into over-simplistic solutions.

I’ve brushed up against this issue in my work as a designer. Some years ago I created the Toaster Project, which aimed to make an electric pop-up toaster from scratch, starting by digging up the raw materials. It took me nine months and at the end of this process of mining, smelting, refining and mostly failing, I had an object that resembled a strange cargo-cult-prehistoric mutation. It was
a ridiculous way to make a toaster, but I wanted to use humour to talk about consumerism and the idea that the environmental costs of cheap electrical goods aren’t priced in effectively. Death by Design overcomes this challenge in a different way. It tells the stories of people who are or were involved in various parts of the electronics industry’s supply chain, cutting between two different groups – those living with the legacy of the electronics manufacturing industry in 1970s America and those working within the same industry in present-day China.

Santa Clara County, the small county also known as Silicon Valley, has the highest number of Superfund sites of any county in the US – areas that the US Environmental Protection Agency has deemed so polluted that they require a complex long-term response in order to clear them of contaminants. The pollution at these sites, we’re told by Smith, is a result of inadequate chemical storage at PCB factories and microchip foundries in the 1970s and 1980s. These methods were common practice at the time, but are now understood to be inadequate and dangerous. The underground storage tanks constructed to contain the chemicals turned out to be vulnerable to solvents in the chemicals themselves, which caused them to leak. The spread of this chemical waste into the ground is explained as being akin to a drop of ink in a bathtub – a small spill from a point source that has diffused out over a large volume of ground in low concentrations. All of us, especially those living in cities, face exposure to underlying toxic load from contaminants in the air and water. In Silicon Valley, however, the exposure to these chemicals during pregnancy, even at concentrations of one molecule in a trillion, leads to higher rates of birth defects or miscarriages. The big names come up again – the plots of land on which Intel, IBM and Hewlett Packard built their factories in the 1970s are now Superfund sites, with some of the old industrial buildings having been replaced by residential neighbourhoods.

The legacy of these spills is found in both the groundwater around Silicon Valley and the children of the people working in those factories decades ago. We’re introduced to Yvette Flores, who became pregnant while working at a firm called Spectra-Physics in the 1970s. A chemical that she jokingly called “green gunk” and which she used “all day every day” contained extremely high concentrations of lead – something she only later found out. Her son, now an adult, suffers from severe physical and mental disability, and requires round- the-clock care. As Flores notes, “It was unnecessary.” Lead has been known to be harmful in pregnancy and to infants since the early 1900s – Flores just wasn’t told that it was in the chemicals she was using. Another couple explain
how they noticed that cases of cancer were clustered in their neighbourhood – they then relate the failed treatments and eventual death of their own son from cancer. We hear similar stories from other families, as well as the lawyers who’ve been fighting in the courts for decades to force brands such as IBM and Intel to admit liability and provide compensation for the lives destroyed. This is all depressingly familiar – the individual versus the big corporation, trying to win justice for industry malpractice whose effects are only felt years later. It is a battle we have seen played out with tobacco, pharmaceuticals like Thalidomide, and leaded petrol, as well as in films such as Erin Brockovich (2000).

The shift to contemporary China is expected, but no less disquieting when it arrives. If just one molecule in a trillion is considered dangerous in California, what of the channels of highly polluted water owing from electronics factories and through towns and cities on the other side of the world? This is where the real power of the film lies – the middle-aged Californians telling their life story are the future of the young Chinese living it today. Brands such as Apple, IBM and Hewlett Packard, which argue that lax industrial practices are a thing of the past, nonetheless continue to benefit from cost-cutting because they outsource the manufacture of their products to Chinese companies such as Foxconn. Scott Nova, the executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, appears in the film to explain that one of the primary purposes for outsourcing is to disavow responsibility for people who would otherwise be working directly for your firm. “Apple doesn’t have to worry about what it means to workers if they insist on the tripling of the pace of iPhone production,” he notes. Meanwhile, the workers are left over a barrel – they are poor, usually have no education beyond high-school level and have few other options. Labour costs make up just 1 per cent of the price of an iPhone.

Interviews with various industry insiders give the lie to the idea that environmental hazards from factories in the electronics supply chains aren’t known, or that as clients, these brands can’t demand improvements. “They set up these supply chains exactly the way they want them. They monitor them with exacting scrutiny,” says Mike Gray, a former microchip buyer for IBM. “Any good supply-chain manager knows what’s happening.” Again, Apple is the main focus. Here, the filmmakers give some of the Chinese workers secret cameras to film their working conditions inside the factories, and so we are shown imagery of Apple products on the production line: the aluminium stands of iMacs being polished by hand, for example. This is not the kind of imagery that is included in the plush “making of” videos narrated by Jony Ive that Apple release to promote its products.

But Death by Design is not just a litany of large American corporations taking advantage of lax Chinese regulations. Chinese corporations do it too. As an anonymous Chinese factory worker explains, if the environmental bureau comes to test the factory outflow, “the boss puts tap water in the waste pipe”. Should a factory get caught cheating, it is cheaper to pay a bribe or the fine than invest in decent water-treatment facilities. One Chinese factory owner runs the outflow from his water treatment system through an ornamental pond of koi carp to show that the machinery is working sustainably. He explains that the Chinese clients who visit the factory are surprised that he is wasting money on treating the factory waste. This legwork – interviewing factory owners, giving workers secret cameras, following environmental campaigners, talking to bereaved families in the US – is impressive in showing the systemic problems within electronics manufacturing.

Less confident is the film’s discussion of design, which seems surprisingly dated. The slogans of the various tech companies used in some of the graphics are years old – BT (formerly British Telecom) hasn’t claimed “It’s good to talk” for decades – while more recent efforts by designers to address the problem of disposable electronics are conspicuous in their absence. No mention is made of Project Ara, for instance, Google’s effort of the last few years to create a modular smartphone whose parts can be upgraded or replaced as needed. Even stranger is the absence of any mention of Fairphone, a Danish company founded in 2013 which has successfully launched two models of smartphone so far. Fairphone’s raison d’être is to address the failings that Death by Design highlights – auditing its suppliers and transparently holding them to account; encouraging repair of its products; and paying more to ensure that its electronics are made in an environmentally and socially responsible way. Even Apple, in 2016, unveiled a robot called Liam, which has been designed to dismantle an iPhone to its bare parts in about five minutes, such that its components can be reused or recycled as single types of uncontaminated material. None of this is discussed in the film.


We do, however, meet the entrepreneurs behind iFixit, a website that sells replacement parts and which provides the tools and information to install them. I have bought several replacement screens for shattered phones from this website, but Williams chooses to focus on an issue that iFixit publicised several years ago – that iPhones are designed without replaceable batteries. Today, this seems like a small concern. Apple has progressed from glued-in batteries to soldering every component of its new laptops to the mainboard, making what was formerly a fairly upgradeable and fixable computer into something that is neither. Bizarrely, another company that the filmmakers choose to highlight as an example of responsible design is a small computer shop in Ireland, which makes wooden cases for PCs. It’s a well-meaning but naive eco-design with a distinct 1990s feel – putting circuit boards in a wooden case doesn’t do anything to address how those circuit boards have been made. In fact, the effect may be pernicious. Sweeep, an electronics recycler in London, singles out wooden or bamboo computer cases as an example of exactly the kind of failure to think at a system-wide level that designers ought to avoid. An occasional wooden case will contaminate a recycling stream set up to handle plastics and metals.

Despite these failings, the parallel Death by Design draws between the industrial pollution of the tech industry decades ago in the west and the contemporary tech industry operating in China is captivating. It highlights activists on the ground in China with more force than we typically get from rare articles about e-waste in the Guardian. It brings to light the dirt behind technology, the increasing presence of which shows no sign of abating. Environmental awareness in China is growing – another parallel that can be drawn with 1970s America – and perhaps the perpetrators of some of the environmental crimes recorded in Death by Design may one day find themselves before regulators who have grown some teeth. Watching the lm, one is left hoping that the saying commonly attributed to speculative novelist William Gibson – “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet” – applies as much to the conditions in which technology is manufactured, as it does to the spread of technology itself.