Posted by: Kenn Hermann | April 4, 2006

All Technologies Are Transformed into Hazardous Waste

Photo courtesy of Recycling Council of Ontario

“It’s just a tool” #3

Do you see your old computer, television, printer, or cell phone in this picture? If not, you need to look more closely because they are there — if not today, then some time in the future.

2. All Technologies eventually become waste, much of it hazardous to the natural environment on which all of life depends.This is an inescapable reality of our current industrial and consumer practices, not an alarmist rant. This is not an unfortunate side-effect; it is integral to the very character of technology itself. This fact alone means that technology can never be considered ‘neutral’ or benign.

The above photo is a stark reminder that those ‘clean’ machines sitting on our desks are, in fact, filled with a startling range of hazardous materials. Since it is impossible to throw them ‘away,’ they will eventually end up as toxic and hazardous waste in our landfills. And those cute cell phones? They are full of hazardous materials as well. How long can we fool ourselves into believing that nuclear power is ‘clean’? There is, of course, lots of other consumer electronics waste.

If you have been reading my technology posts you have noticed that I have repeatedly underscored the consequences of forgetting the abstract character of technology and our abstract relationship to it. Being unmindful of the inevitable waste that our technology generates is another consequence of that abstraction: “out of sight, out of mind” typifies the attitudes of most of us. The handsome new laptop at Best Buy is isolated from its complete life-cycle, from the extraction of raw materials to its demise in a landfill. All most of us care about is whether this machine can help us do a particular task for a good price — period. We don’t care about any other dimension of its existence. Christians must care. Attending to only a narrow utilitarian aspect of the laptop is the only way we could possibly consider it, or any other technology, as environmentally neutral or benign.

There are many ways that our current industrial and consumer practices encourage this attitude, but let’s consider just one. There is a significant difference between the ‘price’ that a consumer pays for a product and the actual ‘cost’ of that product to the natural environment. Our current market pricing mechanism has successfully externalized a large majority of the total cost of our technologies so that it seems like we are getting a bargain. We are not. If the cheap prices of our technologies do not include the ‘cost’ of preserving clean air, soil, and water or paying the healthcare bills of those harmed by hazardous waste, who pays? Does the ‘price’ of $2.60/gallon of gasoline represent the true ‘cost’ of our dependence on fossil fuels? There are no free lunches: We either learn to pay the full cost of our technologies now or have the next generation pay a much steeper cost.

A robust Christian understanding of our stewardship responsibilities for the earth requires that we assume responsibility for the complete life-cycle of our technologies. We must learn to integrate the technological life-cycle of our products into the life-sustaining ecological systems which the Lord has created and entrusted to our care. Despite the illusion that our technology casts, our lives depend on the Natural Economy of the earth, not a growing GDP based on a proliferation of consumer electronics.

One way to shoulder greater responsibility for the life-cycle of technology is to create practices and incentives that insure that the ‘cost’ to the environment is more fully accounted for in the ‘price’ the consumer pays for the product. Christian engineers, business leaders, politicians, economists, environmentalists take note. Even Christian accountants can play a role by taking full ‘account’ of all technological costs to the environment.

There are bright signs of hope that this is already being done. I have my students read Ray Anderson, Mid-Course Correction: Toward a Sustainable Enterprise: The Interface Model . Interface is an international manufacturer of commercial carpeting. Ten years ago Anderson had a conversion experience while reading Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce. He was jolted awake by confronting the tremendous burden his company was putting on the earth, from the raw materials it used in its carpets to the waste it generated in manufacturing and replacing them. He is now a leader of the sustainable industry movement. Watch this recent video with him. (Lots available on him.) I have posted links to other organizations with stewardship concerns. They will lead you to many others.

So, the next time you get ready to buy that bargain computer, remember you can’t throw the old one ‘away.’ Browse the web for computer recycling businesses in your area — or just let it slowly decompose in your backyard to provide nutritients for your plants. Well, the cadmium, lead, mercury, chromium . . . might be a small problem.



  1. This is a very important issue that few think about because, like you said, most of us are not familiar with the life-cycle of the products we purchase. The true cost of something is almost never reflected in the price (is it even possible?). Thanks for this reminder and exhortation.

  2. […] Dr. Kenn Hermann has written a helpful article reminding us that all technologies are transformed into hazardous waste. […]

  3. Thanks for the comment, Josh. The market is a very poor, blind guide to the true costs and prices of our technology — or anything else worth our care. That only means that our Christian practices must include a ‘full accounting’ that honors what the the Lord requires but the market excuses. As Ray Anderson admonished his employees as they embarked on the daunting task of reconfiguring their company, we must “Brighten the Corner Where We Are.” That’s ‘all’ the Lord expects from us.

  4. Thanks for the clearly articulated reminder Kenn.

    I want to raise the question of what the means by which such practices as externalizing true costs are to be changed. You say in your response to Josh, that “the market is a very poor, blind guide to the true costs and prices of our technology — or anything else worth our care. That only means that our Christian practices must include a ‘full accounting’ that honors what the the Lord requires but the market excuses.” This view of the “market” is correct if we think of it as an abstract force somehow “out there” that operates in the manner of Smith’s “invisible hand”. But does the market really exist in that form? Or is what we refer to as the market a result of a complex of policy decisions, cultural customs, economic and political power and geography in a certain time period? In short, the market is a cultural artifact that was developed within the normative framework of the creation order. It is not an autonomous mechanism that exists outside of a particular historical setting. Buying and selling is always embedded in a framework of human decisions and creational circumstances.

    This, to me, is critical to understanding how change occurs and could be helped to occur. Our current views in the western world are that we must let the (abstract mechanism) market “take its course” or we must “correct” it through government regulations. That the relationships of selling and buying are beyond any individual to change and that government policy can affect that relationship goes without saying. But does this polarity really get at what needs to happen and what can happen on a larger scale?

    While I also appreciate that intentional change of habits by individuals (Christian and otherwise) is important, we need to approach this as comprehensively as possible. The change process is neither a purely individual one (“consumer buying habits”) nor a government regulatory one.

    A helpful example of how a market–understood culturally–changes is in the area of tobacco smoking. A very significant change has occurred here, so much so that I wouldn’t dream of smoking (would I ever want to !) in your home or even ask you. Twenty years ago you might have had an ashtray waiting for any smoker. How did this change? Because of government regulations? In part yes, because of many restrictions on where one can smoke. Because any number of individual people changed their habits? In part yes. Habits are transferred from person to person. In addition, our culture has changed. We have internalized the cost of smoking into our cultural marketplace. Not smoking in your home or car is now just something we wouldn’t do. It is a cultural custom to not do so (in most cases).

    To come back to your example, I believe the market, understood broadly and culturally, is the means by which change takes place. Effective legal means are always rooted in such change. Believing that the market place is a human cultural artifact empowers us to believe that we are not simply victims of “big government” or autonomous “market forces”.

    So let’s keep up the good analysis and advocacy and our cultural market place will change!

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