Cyanide: Technology's Other Carbon Footprint

Recently, Barnes and Noble launched its own e-book reader, the “Nook,” to compete with the Amazon Kindle.[i] E-readers are handy electronic devices, they can hold hundreds of books, and use an ‘electronic paper.’ They have been heralded as alternatives to ‘dead-tree publishing.’

Without doubt, digital technology improves lives. Consider mobile phones: once isolated African fishermen now connect and locate the best markets for their catch. As a result, spoilage has decreased, fishermen make more money, and consumers pay less.[ii] “Mobile phones have been described as ‘the single most effective tool to promote development,’” says Tom Standage of The Economist magazine.[iii] In the same way, e-readers might save America’s forests to absorb CO2.[iv] [v]

Substituting plastic for paper reminds me of a movie where a character complains of a headache. His friend, a tough-as-nails soldier, smiles. “Let me show you a trick,” he says. The soldier breaks his friend’s finger. The pain of a broken finger trumps a headache. Problem solved.

Nothing comes without cost. Manufacturing and disposing of electronics can harm the environment more than the harvest of a thousand trees. There’s another carbon footprint to consider besides CO2: CN—cyanide.

Raw materials for electronics don’t spring from the ground in the same way trees do for books. “If it’s not grown, it has to be mined,” says resource geologist Sarah Andrews and author of the “Em Hansen” mysteries.[vi]

“These are not your grandfather’s mines,” says Robert Moran, PhD., an expert in geochemistry.[vii] Moran’s company, Michael-Moran Associates, has commented extensively on the environmental impacts of mining projects around the world for both the mining industry and for environmental activists. Mines are “constructed on a huge scale unheard of less than thirty years ago.”[viii]

And the reason there are open-pit mines, “2,000 feet deep, and one to two miles across,” is our appetite for stuff. Each year, the average American consumes 23 tons of mineral products.[ix] By supplanting paper with technology, we stop growing, harvesting, and planting trees and start digging and drilling for metals, toxic chemicals, and petroleum products. “Welcome to my world,” Andrews said.

It’s a dangerous world filled with explosives, Bunyanesque machines, and hazrdous materials. Industrial extraction uses cyanide compounds to separate metals from the ore.[x] And, though U.S. mines pollute less than others around the world, hard-rock mining produces more toxic waste than any other industry in the country.[xi] For example, one ounce of refined gold generates nearly 80 tons of toxic waste. The leftovers are akin to nuclear waste for the mining industry: around for a long time, hazardous, and no one really knows what to do with it. The waste contains “every element in the periodic table,” said Dr. Moran.

Printed texts from the eighth century still exist[xii] while electronics break, wear out, or, more often, become obsolete. When reusing isn’t possible, the choice becomes disposing or recycling.

Discarded electronics account for 70% of the overall toxic waste currently found in landfills, by some accounts. Americans pitch a computer and three mobile phones every second.[xiii] California’s waste stream sees 480-thousand tons of junked electronic goods each year.[xiv]

Electronics recycling is not wholly benign. American recyclers continue to dump our unwanted electronics on developing countries. Often, the metal recovery poses health and safety risks for workers and pollutes our environment:[xv] burning plastics and using toxic chemicals—sodium cyanide; nitric, hydrochloric, and sulfuric acids—to extract the metals.

Obviously, technology is not going away. Nor should it. But changes need to happen. Perhaps there should be a haz-mat disposal charge assessment for all products. Europe and Japan have passed laws that require electronic manufacturers to take back their products for recycling. [xvi] The law has caused manufacturers to rethink design with an eye toward ease of disassembly and reuse.

Bottom line: Forests return [xvii] . Plastics and cyanide dumps don’t go away. Instead of saving trees for our descendants, we’re leaving tons of toxic wastes and despoiled landscapes where trees may not grow for millennia.

If you still think sustainable forestry is a bad idea, give me your finger; let me show you a trick.


[i] Kellogg, Carolyn. “The Nook: Barnes & Noble announces its own e-reader,” Los Angeles Times Website, October 20, 2009, http://bit.ly/4vGWYT (accessed December 4, 2009)

[ii] Standage, Tom. “Telecoms in emerging markets,” The Economist website, September, 2009, http://bit.ly/8NCAYd (accessed December 4, 2009)

[iii] Standage, Tom. “Telecoms in emerging markets,” The Economist website, September, 2009, http://bit.ly/8NCAYd (accessed December 4, 2009)

[iv] Yardley, William. “Protecting the Forests, and Hoping for Payback,” New York Times Website, November 28, 2009, http://bit.ly/6N5t46 (accessed December 4, 2009)

[v] Sibley, Lisa. August 19, 2009. “Cleantech Group report: E-readers a win for carbon emissions.” http://cleantech.com/news/4867/cleantech-group-finds-positive-envi

[vi] Personal conversation

[vii] Moran, Robert E. 2007. “Pebble Mine: Hydrogeology and Geochemistry Issues.”

[viii] Personal conversation

[ix] Mostly as rock used for roads and other construction according to the Mineral Information Institute.

[x] Moran, Robert E. “Cyanide In Mining: Some Observations On The Chemistry, Toxicity And Analysis Of Mining-Related Waters.” http://earthworksaction.org/pubs/Cyanide_Leach_Packet.pdf

[xi] According to the Environmental Protection Agency

[xii] Rocca, Mo. “The Future of Paper.” The Tomorrow Show, CBS (http://bit.ly/4xxzIZ) accessed December 5, 2009

[xiii] http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/11/06/60minutes/main4579229.shtml “”Well, we throw out about 130,000 computers every day in the United States.” And he said over 100 million cell phones are thrown out annually.

[xiv] Cascadia Consulting Group, Inc. 2004“Executive Summary [to CIWMB] – Statewide Waste Characterization Study (http://www.ciwmb.ca.gov/Publications/default.asp?pubid=1097)

[xv] The Economist Jun 7th 2007, “The truth about recycling”

[xvi] The Economist Jun 7th 2007, “The truth about recycling”

[xvii]The functional forest, especially a quick-growing, well-managed one compensates for the pollution through sequestering carbon and protecting watersheds. And all along, gainful employment is made available in forests for people making tough decisions; it’s not easy to be green.