Hidden Vista: New Microsoft Operating System Means Toxic Trash for Third World


March 13, 2007


Browse in Environment Philippines

There’s an old dump in a municipality on the island of Negros in the Philippines.  It hasn’t been used for years, and it’s been picked pretty clean.  But when I was there a year ago I saw a small boy digging through the debris, in search of some remaining scrap that might fetch a few pesos.  Such is the desperation of poverty in the Third World – a desperation that will be convenient for the people at Microsoft, though I doubt they have given much thought to the connection.

When the company launched its new Vista operating system in January there was the usual gawking over features.  But Vista has a grim back end that Greenpeace and others have pointed out.  By its very existence the new operating system makes the majority of the world’s computers obsolete, and therefore on a faster journey to the dump.  Many of those dumps will be in Third World countries such as the Philippines.  The result will be what one group called a “tsunami” of toxic electronic waste.

Microsoft is infamous for “bloatware”, and Vista is the new flagship of the line. It is so unwieldy that more than 90% of the existing computers in North America can’t handle it.  Only about half can handle even the scaled down version.  This is the feature that caused computer makers to salivate, and the one that makes Vista almost a parody of the modus of the corporate market:  Create a problem, then sell a solution to the problem you have created – and ignore the new problem you are creating in the process.

To be sure, not everyone is going to rush out to buy a new computer just for Vista.  (Off the top, how many things do you really need to do that your Windows XP can’t?)  But as Vista becomes the new standard, most PC users will gravitate to it sooner or later; and that raises the question, what happens to the old computers that get displaced?

Despite the industry’s clean image, the things really are toxic bombs.  They are loaded with lead, cadmium and mercury, as well as wire coatings that give off noxious fumes when burned (which scavengers do to reclaim the metal.)  One would think, given Silicon Valley’s fantastic wealth, and its veneer of hip social conscience, that it would have mounted a concerted effort long ago to reduce the lethal components; and to close the product loop so that the poisons don’t leech out into the world.

One would think.  Instead the trash continues to mount. Californians alone toss out some 450,000 tons of e-waste –as it’s called – a year.  The figure includes televisions and other electronics as well as computer gear, but the latter weigh heavily in the mix.  Only ten percent of the nation’s computer trash gets recycled. Of that, more than half is shipped off the to Third World countries,  whose “comparative advantage” — in the parlance of free trade dogma — is the desperation of people like the boy in the Negros dump.

The result has been toxic hellholes such as Guigu, China, where scavengers pour acid on computer parts over bare soil to extract the silver and gold.  The water there has become so poisoned that drinking water has to be trucked in from 18 miles away.  A single cathode ray tube contains 4-8 pounds of lead; and while the industry is moving to flat panels, there still are millions of the old ones in the pipeline, and destined for such Third World ports.

The shipment of toxic e-waste is supposed to be against the law –something called the Basel Convention, to be precise.  It may not surprise you to learn that the U.S. has yet to ratify this convention, due to industry objections.  The only place it has the force of law is Europe, where the European Union has made it part of EU law.  But enforcement is spotty even there; and elsewhere the band plays on.

Consider the new trade agreement between Japan and the Philippines, which was negotiated last year. Japan has been seen as a leader in regards to e-waste.  Manufacturers there have to take responsibility for what leaves their factories, and take these products back after they’ve been used. But what happens after that?  The  Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement provides a clue.

Under the terms of JPEPA, the Philippines has agreed to reduce to zero its tariffs on toxic waste .  (This includes medical and municipal waste as well as computer trash.) Defenders say that local and international laws will serve to keep carcinogens at bay.  Anyone who thinks that a law on the books is a law enforced has not spent much time in the Philippines.  As for Basel, that’s not in effect as I said.  Besides, why bother to negotiate a zero tariff on something you do not intend to export?

In exchange for opening its doors to Japan’s toxic trash, the Philippines has gained the ability to export nurses to Japan.  To put this another way, Japan sends its noxious substances to the Philippines; and the Philippines sends to Japan the nurses who, if they could stay at home, might be able to help treat the Filipinos who get sick as a result.  Would you believe that there still are people who say that  “free trade” is a bludgeon that strong countries hold over weaker ones?

The U.S. computer industry has made belated moves to take responsibility for its mess. Dell for example will pick up computers produced by any company for $36.00.  It also says it is reducing toxics in its products.  But generally the U.S. record is pathetic, and not just on computers.  In the Philippines you can walk into an older mall and find a multitude of little stands where young men will repair your cell phone or upgrade it. Here in the U.S. the neighborhood repair shop is a thing of the past. We toss out some 130 million cell phones alone every year.

Now we have Vista, and the new tsunami. A lot of people think it represents a fundamentally wrong turn, even as an operating system.  John Dvorak among others  has lamented how Microsoft turned the operating system, which is essentially a file loader, into a sprawling platform for features that the company wants to control on the desktop. In the old days, if you wanted a browser you bought a browser, or downloaded one for free.  Now you have to get the whole “clumsy monstrosity” as Dvorak called Windows and its progeny, with all the features loaded on.

The reason is that Microsoft wants to leverage its monopoly of the operating system as far as it can. To that extent at least, a computational model based on patent monopolies is conducive to toxicity and waste.  The good news, I guess, is that many experts consider Vista the last gasp of that old model.  From here on, the open source alternative of a Linux is going to become too accessible and appealing to resist.

That won’t solve the problem of computer trash, but it will at least slow down the increase of it.  There’s a saying at Microsoft that programmers should have to “eat their own dog food “ (which I suspect actually is dog something else.) You build crap, you use crap.  That wouldn’t be a bad saying for the industry generally in regards to its waste.  You make it, you eat it – and then you take responsibility for what happens to it after that.