Useful Guide to Understanding
Where All That Stuff Comes From

by Donella Meadows


Usually, as I boot up my computer to write this column, I'm thinking about the column, not the computer. Today, though, I've just finished reading Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things, and I'm looking at my computer with awe.

Stuff tells how the things that fill our lives--coffee and newspapers, T-shirts and hamburgers--are made. It traces athletic shoes, cars, French fries, colas back to their origins. And computers. The trails are fascinating, but not pretty.

Stuff says that the bland gray exterior of my computer is made of a plastic called ABS (acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene) crafted in a chemical plant near Los Angeles out of Saudi Arabian oil, Wyoming coal, and Texas natural gas. Tiny pellets of ABS were injected under heat and pressure into a mold, where they fused into the shape I now see before me.

I'm looking at one end of a glass vacuum tube made in Japan. Electron guns at the back are firing beams of energy at tiny beads of red, green and blue phosphors etched into the front, making the colors I see. The glass monitor was soldered together with lead oxide. When discarded, it will be hazardous waste.

Of course the work of the computer is done not by the screen or the case, but by the tiny chips inside.

The chips start with silica (essentially sand) mined in Washington and heated with carbon in Oregon to form 98 percent pure silicon. That silicon is cooked with hydrochloric acid and hydrogen to form a "hyper-pure" silicon rod 8 inches across. The rod is sliced into paper-thin wafers, which are polished like mirrors and shipped to--where else?--Silicon Valley.

The California "wafer fab," longer than two football fields, houses equipment made by more than 100 companies around the world. It does such delicate work that its air has to be kept much purer than we keep it for people. Outside air contains maybe I million particles per cubic foot; hospital operating rooms stay below 100,000 particles per cubic foot; "clean rooms" in Silicon Valley permit no more than five particles per cubic foot.

Workers wearing gowns, booties, and gloves use ultra-precise machinery to etch minute circuits on the silicon. Micromachines deposit phosphorus and boron in just the right places, then painstakingly thin layers of copper from Arizona, then an even thinner layer of gold. The circuits are built up in hundreds of steps, with cleaning and oxidation in between. To make one computer's chips, which weigh one-50th of a pound, a state-of-the-art plant uses 1,400 gallons of water and generates about 40 pounds of waste.

The finished wafers are packed in unbleached Douglas-fir pulp from Oregon and black plastic foam from Japan and shipped to Malaysia. In Kuala Lumpur, skilled workers earning about $2 an hour cut the wafers into individual chips and assemble them into "packages" mounted on a copper frame, molded into plastic and wired together with gold. Hardly a scrap of the expensive gold is wasted, but at the South African mine each pound of gold extracted piles up a million pounds of cyanide-treated toxic tailings.

Back to California go the chip packages. There they are inserted into circuit boards, the wild mazes you see if you look inside a computer. The boards are made in Texas, out of copper, fiberglass, and epoxy resin. They are plated with copper from Chile, tin from Brazil, and lead recycled from Houston's dead car batteries. This step generates more hazardous waste than any other in the computer's fabrication.

The boards, case, monitor, and other pieces of my computer were transported by ship, truck, and rail to the final assembly plant in California, put together, packed in polystyrene foam and a cardboard box, and shipped another 3,000 miles to me.

The manufacturing of my 55-pound computer generated 139 pounds of waste and used 7,300 gallons of water and 2,300 kilowatt-hours of energy. It will use four times that much energy again during its lifetime--energy that is generated by a nuclear power plant, a coal-fired plant and hydropower from the flooded lands of the Cree people at James Bay.

Since I'm a slow adopter of new technologies, I'll use the computer about four years before the industry convinces me that it's too clunky to tolerate. If I resist, replacement parts and software for my "defunct" models will be hard to come by. I have two defunct models in my attic already. By the year 2005, there will be 150 million personal computers in U.S. landfills, filling a space equivalent to a football field stacked a mile high.

If you think this story is complex, you should read the chapter about athletic shoes!

The authors of Stuff, John Ryan and Alan Durning, do not intend to send us on guilt trips instead of shopping trips. They don't expect us to unplug our computers or bury our cars or "bite into some hot, salty fries and think about farmworkers' children with blue baby syndrome." They just want us to understand our world, and to use its products thoughtfully.

They talk about a sign in the Seattle Ship Canal that warns boaters, "No Wake." That's impossible, Ryan and Durning point out--you can't move a boat without creating waves that rock other boats. They prefer another sign that says, "Watch Your Wake. Wish Everyone Did!"

The book is available for $9.95 from Northwest Environment Watch, 1402 Third Ave., Suite 1127, Seattle, Washington, 98101-2118. You can phone toll-free (888) 643-9820, or email nwwatch@ige.apc.org.

Donella H. Meadows, a systems analyst, author, director of the Sustainability Institute, and adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College, writes a syndicated article each week to "present a global view, a connected view, a long-term view, an environmental and compassionate view." Meadows can be reached at Sustainablilty Institute, Box 174, Hartland Four Corners, VT 05049.

Published April 11, 1998
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