Is a USB Flash Drive “green”?

My research started with a simple post on Facebook.

An upcoming conference has recently announced that this year they would not be distributing those little books full of paper titles, abstracts, and session schedules. This year, all of that information would be placed on a USB flash drive, in an effort to go green. It was the last part that got the conversation going- was a USB flash drive really greener than a paper book that could be printed on recycled paper and then sent to the recycler again, presumably in the United States? As one person stated, “Isn’t the sourcing, production, and shipping of all that electronic ‘stuff’ pretty bad?” Another colleague concurred, offering the analysis that the conference organizers had chosen to “[export] pollution- the east Asian regions that produce the flash drives get the waste and the US gets the shiny objects.”

My first thought was not for the tiny little drives that would be in our conference bags this year, but the ones that would be there next year, and the year after that…a never ending pile, much like my enormous collection of plastic conference name-tag holders with the lanyards that is growing unwieldy in the back of my closet. The decidedly dark-grey character of the academic conferences I attend has haunted me for years, and greening them up is something I have thought about tackling in between writing the dissertation, grading papers, conducting research, looking for jobs…in other words, I hadn’t quite gotten to it yet. But this seemed like the perfect opportunity to start the conversation. While I agreed with my colleagues concerns, I didn’t actually know how green a flash drive was. So I decided to do a little research.

It was surprisingly difficult.

My questions were simple. How green are USB flashdrives? I define green not only as the environmental impact of their production, but also the potential for an item to be recycled or reused at the end of its use-life, and the social factors of labor- who is actually producing the items and under what conditions?

Don’t ever actually Google these questions unless you have a stiff drink in one hand and hours of your life you don’t need. Also, the internet will only look at you like you’re stupid. Almost no one deals with any of these questions.

What is a flash drive made from? Honestly, after 3.5 hours asking Google (and Google Scholar) this question in every derivation I could think of, all I can say is: I have no idea. And I have a head-ache. And I need another drink. What I can tell you is that my lack of answers in not from some deep, personal flaw. According to Low-Tech Magazine “A life cycle analysis of high-tech products is extremely complex and can take many years, due to the large amount of parts, materials and processing techniques involved. In the meantime, products and processing technologies keep evolving, with the result that most life cycle analyses are simply outdated when they are published” (De Decker 2009).  De Decker is not kidding. In fact he, and everyone else I have found, keep referring back to a 2002 article by Ed Williams et al, where the authors discuss the “mountains of materials” that are used to create, back then, 32 MB RAM microchip. According to Williams this 2 gram piece of equipment required materials equaling 630 times its final mass to manufacture, including “1.6 kilograms of fossil fuel, 72 grams of chemicals and 32 kilograms of water.” While this analysis has not been updated, De Decker believes that it is still valid despite changes in technology and manufacturing.

De Decker discusses the concept of “embodied” energy in manufactured goods- what amount of energy is necessary for an item to be manufactured, as opposed to the amount of energy it consumes during its life-cycle while operating. Traditional heavy-manufacturing, say of our cars and refrigerators, is on the order of 1-2 (De Decker; Williams). This means that your car uses twice as much energy during its average lifespan than was used to manufacture it. According to De Decker, “In the case of semi-conductor manufacturing this relationship is reversed…[10 times more energy is used to manufacture a microchip than it uses in its lifetime].” Though the use-life energy consumption of modern electronics is relatively low, the embodied energy of these same gadgets has sky-rocketed compared to traditional manufacturing. De Decker notes that “A handful of microchips can have as much embodied energy as a car”, which has vast implications for energy use and policy, among other concerns. While using recycled materials in the manufacturing process, and recycling at the end of an objects life-cycle, can be a way to off-set this embodied energy that goes into manufactured items, it isn’t feasible with current Solid State Drives technology (which includes flash drives).

These items are not easily recycled. There is just too much stuff in them. De Decker points out, rather depressingly, that “Recycling is not a solution if all your energy use is concentrated in the manufacture process.” The good news is that USB flash drives have a long, long use life (as long as the technology does not become obsolete).

I did find vendors who offered “eco-friendly” flash drives, which generally meant that the casing to the electronics was manufactured out of recycled plastic or bamboo. One wholesaler also claimed to have “lead Free” flash drives that they claimed are more easily “decomposed” than traditional flash drives. Considering the high number of largely unknown gases, chemicals, and minerals that are discussed (but never directly), lead may be the least of our problems.

So who makes these USB flash drives? The same creatures who make all of our shiny electronics- magic techno-fairies in a far away land called China, although some manufacturing plants from the large companies exist in India, Taiwan, South Africa, and the United States. The conditions under which the employees of companies such as SanDisk and Kingston work is also largely unknown.

There is an 8 minute video of the production of USB flash drives in a shiny and modern Kingston factory, somewhere in Asia, made by netbooknews.com, which appears to be an industry website. The video reinforces the feeling that technology is divorced from people- shiny chips are placed in complex looking space-aged machines with darkened windows by smiling, silent people who quickly fade into the background. Computers make gadgets. It’s very simple and clean. It was people who put the labels on the finished product- two women bent over a table with a length of sticky labels and tweezers. You never see their faces.

In 2004 a short, unpublished study looked at minority workers, largely Hispanic, working at an IBM microchip manufacturing plant in Silicon Valley. The plant was also located near a minority neighborhood, where many of the employees and their families lived. Smith discusses that many of the employees were women, and were largely unskilled, lacking training even in the handling of the toxic chemicals they were exposed to on a daily basis. These included chemicals such as “xylene, epoxy resins, hydrofluoric acid, antimony, boron, and arsenic” resulting in a high volume of  occupational illness which is “3 times that of any other basic industry” (pg 3-4). IBM, as well as other high-tech manufacturing plants in the Santa Clara County were cited by the EPA for numerous environmental infractions, including leaks of carcinogenic chemicals into local water supplies affecting tens of thousands of people. While it is widely accepted that the United States enjoys some of the least rigorous environmental and historic preservation laws in the developed world, it can only be assumed that the environmental injustice experienced by American citizens in places such as Silicon Valley pales in comparison with that experienced in places such as China. However, I have not been able to locate any information on the labor conditions experienced at microchip manufacturing plants in Asia.

So far, none of this discussion has even touched upon the manufacturing processes that are required prior to creating the flash drive for our conference. What about the Blood Minerals and Rare Earth Minerals, those items that fuel our gadgets, fuel the world economy, and fuel genocide, that I hear so much about? Where are those involved? These materials, including copper, tungsten, neodymium, dysprosium, coltan, and terbium are vital to high-tech manufacturing, and I assume flash drives which are in the larger family of Solid States Drives (SSD).  (FYI in April of this year both Apple and Intel announced they would stopped purchasing conflict materials from DRC)

When researching  this deceptively simple question- how green is a flash drive?- I am struck, ultimately, by the separation of people and technology. The discussions are centered on the aesthetics of the design and the function of the object; there is no discussion on the human cost of our technology, at least not by those manufacturing, selling, or commenting on that technology. I have been disappointed in the “tech sites” that purport to consider all aspects of technological advances and the latest gadgets. They always forget the people.

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2 thoughts on “Is a USB Flash Drive “green”?

  1. Excellent! I love this investigation and it’s not surprising that no real answers were found. It seems like commodities (deemed necessities) that everyone has access to slip through the cracks of environmental concern and studies of human impact. Because nearly every person uses this technology in the U.S. (or other post-industrialized countries) no one seems to care. The “people” are found in studying how/why people use the final product, not the social or cultural processes involved in production. I think it may be similar to cars – in the 50s no one really cared about the environmental impact, but in the 70s when a gas shortage impacted individuals on a mass scale in the U.S., people became concerned with the production/consumption of gasoline in order to use this product of technology, and in the 80s with the first huge oil catastrophe environmental impacts seemed to start gaining momentum. But has anyone investigated TVs, DVD players, laptops, CD players, GPS systems, etc.? I don’t know, but from the results of your investigation, it doesn’t sound like it. And so what if there were? Would anything actually be done? Probably not. Until there is a direct linkage between these everyday devices and an enviromental catastrophe I don’t think people will care.

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