Last updated: August 2005
DVD players have almost completely replaced VHS players as the home entertainment system of choice. But how environmentally friendly is this new technology? Katy Brown investigates.
Electronic equipment is one of the biggest known sources of heavy metals, toxic materials and organic pollutants. These chemicals have been linked to cancer, birth defects, nervous system damage, weakening of the immune system, organ damage, endocrine disruption and reproductive illness (1).
Although these chemicals have safer alternatives, most manufacturers claim it would be too expensive to use them, or don't have the will to change. Greenpeace is challenging the government to force manufacturers to use less harmful alternatives.
Greenpeace is also targeting individual companies by chemical testing their products and publishing the results and company responses on the internet. Their greatest success has been with Samsung which has publicly committed itself to establishing timetables for the phase-out of PVC, organotins and brominated flame retardants from all of its products worldwide by the end of this year (1).
Three of the companies on the table make DVD players designed to be more environmentally friendly. Philips makes the DVD model DVDP520 which uses 51% less energy and 13% less packaging, compared with the average of its closest commercial competitors.
Pioneer makes two DVD models; DV-474-S and DVD Mini Rakura, which are compliant with its own environmental label, the guidelines for this label include; specific brominated flame retardants must not be used, the volume of packaging materials used must be reduced by more than 20% from 1990 levels, lead-free solder must be introduced.
Samsung makes two DVD player models, 50TSOP and 50(44)TSOP, which comply with the company's own definition of an eco-product i.e. a product that does not contain materials harmful to humans such as lead and halogenated substances.
What a load of rubbish
With the emergence of DVD players, VHS players are beginning to clutter up landfills, contaminating incinerator feedstocks and adding to waste exports to developing countries (4). Over one million tonnes of electronic waste is discarded in the UK each year and is increasingly sent abroad. According to The Environment Agency such exports are worth millions of pounds.
However, it is unknown exactly how much is being dumped illegally on poor countries by companies trying to avoid high UK disposal costs. A study of six major European ports found that over 22% of waste exports checked were illegal (3). Huge quantities of 'e-waste' are exported to China, Pakistan and India, where they are reprocessed in operations extremely harmful to both human health and the environment. Environmental recycling and disposal standards are commonly non-existent or ignored.
China and India have urged the UK and other countries to stop exporting such waste as they don't have the facilities to inspect the large amounts they receive (3).
Every time a new technology is introduced, its predecessor is rendered obsolete, creating more waste. The most environmentally friendly thing to do is use the products you have as long as possible rather than buying the latest 'new model' every time one comes out.
Further delays for WEEE
The directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment, which should have become national law by 2004 and been implemented by August 2005, is to be further delayed. Under the directive, manufacturers will have to 'take-back' old products and recycle as much of their content as possible. The Department of Trade and Industry has confirmed that producer responsibility obligations won't now be implemented until January 2006 (5). We won't hold our breath.
Many of the companies on the table make electronics for the defence industry. Samsung subsidiary, Samsung Techwin lists tanks, armoured vehicles and amphibious assault vehicles as products it manufactures on its website (6). According to the LG Group's website, one of its subsidiary companies LG Innotek Co Ltd, manufactures missile and underwater systems, radar, communications systems, command and control systems, avionics and information and electronic warfare systems for the defence industry (1).
Of the companies covered only two, Philips and Matsushita have a code of conduct for supplier factories. These companies still receive half a mark as their codes are not independently verified. Twelve of the seventeen brands receive a mark for workers' rights. This relates specifically to the fact that all these companies operate 'maquila' factories in Mexico (8).
Maquila work is intensive, repetitive and dangerous to workers' health. To survive on inadequate salaries, women and men often work more than twelve hour days, with no additional overtime pay.
As a result, accidents, illnesses and stress-related problems are common (9). Sexual harassment and violence are also common and workers complain of being beaten for not meeting production quotas (9).
The unsafe use and disposal of toxic chemicals causes health problems. Workers who regularly handle chemicals and solvents, often without any protective equipment, complain of headaches, upset stomachs, vomiting, skin rashes and heart palpitations. Reproductive health problems are also common (9). Workers who attempt to organize independent unions face mass firings, blacklisting of leaders, police violence, and the possibility of plant closure (9).
1Greenpeace - The Chemical Home 05/07/05
2Telephone conversation, Bart Martens, Greenpeace Netherlands 05/07/05
3The Guardian 21/11/04
4Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition 05/07/05
5'DTI confirms WEEE delay and drops clearing house concept', ENDS Report Issue 363, 04/05
6Samsung website 29/01/04
7 LG website 27/06/02
8 Maquiladora/Manufacturing in Mexico's Border Region, 26/03/05
9Maquila Solidarity website 05/07/05
10Hazards, issue 85, January-March 04
11Multinational Monitor November 2000
12San Francisco Chronicle, 24 May 2002
13 Yamaha website
14 Friends of the Earth Good Wood Guide