Most mobile phones, computers and other consumer electronics are
now manufactured in developing countries like China, Mexico,
Thailand and the Philippines. While labor practices at these
production plants used by major manufactures has come under
increasing focus, there has been little research into environmental
Samples taken from industrial estates in China, Mexico, the
Philippines and Thailand, reveal the release of hazardous chemicals
in each of the three sectors investigated: printed wiring board
manufacture, semiconductor chip manufacture and component
"Over recent years we have seen an increasing concern over the
use of hazardous chemicals in electronic products but attention has
focused on the contamination released during disposal or 'recycling
of electronic waste'", said Dr. Kevin Brigden from the Greenpeace
Research Laboratories. "Our findings of contamination arising
during the manufacturing stage make it clear that only when we
factor in the complete life cycle will the full environmental costs
of electronic devices begin to emerge."
The electronics industry is truly global - with individual
components manufactured at specialized facilities around the world
often involving highly resourced and chemical intensive processes,
generating hazardous wastes - the fate and effects of which are
still very poorly documented.
"There is shockingly little information on precisely which major
brand companies are supplied by which manufacturing facilities.
Responsibility for the contamination lies as much with those brands
as with the facilities themselves," said Zeina Alhajj, Toxics
Campaigner, Greenpeace International, "There has to be full
transparency regarding the supply chain within the electronics
industry, so that brand owners are forced to take responsibility
for the environmental impacts of producing their goods."
The report also documents the contamination of groundwater wells
at a number of sites, particularly around semiconductor
manufacturers, with toxic chlorinated chemicals (VOC's) and toxic
metals. Contamination of groundwater is serious with amny local
communities using groundwater for drinking water.
At one site in the Philippines, three samples contained
chlorinated VOC's above World Health Organisation (WHO) limits for
drinking water. One sample contained tetrachloroethene at 9 times
above the WHO guidance values for exposure limits and 70 times the
US Environmental Protection Agency maximum contaminant level for
drinking water. Elevated levels of metals, particularly copper,
nickel and zinc, were also found in groundwater samples in some
The use of these toxic chemicals in manufacturing processes also
poses potential risks to workers through workplace exposure.
Paying the price
Wastewater discharged from an IBM site in Guadalajara, Mexico
contained hazardous compounds, including some that were not found
at other sites. IBM's 'Supplier Conduct Principles Guidelines'
state that suppliers should operate in a manner that is protective
of the environment.
All major manufactures should be focusing on what they can do to
clean up the production process of their suppliers. It is the
workers and people living near the production plants that are
paying the price of lax control and the polluting practices of the
global electronics industry.
Electronics manufacturing remains at the cutting edge of
technological development and has a strong economic future. There
is no reason why it should not also be at the cutting edge when it
comes to clean technologies, substitution of hazardous chemicals,
greater worker health protection and the prevention of
Check out which of the major brands are doing the most to clean up their act in our Green Guide to Electronics ranking.