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Death By Design

View on The Global Environmental Justice site

Rajashree Ghosh
Resident Scholar, Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University

Why I selected this film
Death by Design examines the global environmental and public health consequences of an all-consuming digital revolution. Smartphones, laptops, tablets, and devices of all kinds have flooded the market, promising high-tech communication capacities and instant information. In this riveting documentary, Sue Williams delves deep as she describes how the manufacturing and disposal of digital devices have deadly consequences.

From China, where most devices are manufactured, to ravaged communities in New York and California, once centers of high-tech manufacturing, the film explores underreported stories of environmental degradation and health tragedies linked to the industry.

What emerges is the dark side of a global industry and a tipping point between consumerism and sustainability. Illustrating some of the lessons learned in the field of environmental justice, the film also advocates a sustainable future for humans and other living beings and the sustainable exploitation of natural resources.

Teacher's guide
Please see the teacher's guide for maps, background information, suggested subjects, questions and activities.

Synopsis: Toxic waste, toxic work
The film opens with examples of terrible water pollution produced by Chinese manufacturing plants that produce iPhones and laptops, many of them for North American markets. With the help of footage filmed by workers using hidden cameras, Williams examines the oppressive working conditions and the severe health risks some of the
workers face. The film also exposes similar problems in Silicon Valley and New York during the technology boom in the 1980s and 1990s, where exposure to lead and other toxic waste damaged the health of both children and adults.

As the production of personal electronics that are “designed to die” increased and supply chains moved offshore, the human and environmental costs of producing these electronics and disposing of the resulting waste shifted from the U.S. to other countries, especially China. As an environmental geographer notes, in North America, “We have very little relationship to our garbage here. We throw it away, and my point is to say, where is away? Away is here, for someone.” Guiyu, a manufacturing center on the Maozhou River northeast of Hong Kong, became the new away and the focal point for ewaste dumping.

The environmental justice focus of the film
Death by Design investigates the unfettered consumption of the latest devices, such as laptops, mobile phones, and tablets, and their impact on the environment and human health. Western brands such as Apple, IBM, and Samsung, using suppliers based in China, have ushered in a digital revolution. But thanks to poor enforcement of environmental regulations, the production and recycling of these products have contributed greatly to the pollution of rivers and groundwater. In China, 60% of the water has been rendered unfit for human consumption.

In addition, as the film shows, the electronics industry frequently forced workers to labor in unhealthy and abusive work environments where they earn low wages producing expensive goods for a global market. Poor protection from toxic chemicals, including cadmium and lead, left workers at risk from cancers, skin diseases, stress, mental illness, and even suicide. In the U.S. as well, communities adjacent to high-tech producers have been harmed by exposure to toxic chemicals.

But could this change? Death by Design suggests several ways to design, fix, and lengthen the life span of devices to reduce their impact on the environment and human health. As consumers, the film concludes, we can make a conscious decision to challenge and reprioritize our lifestyles to ensure that future generations can live in a more just and environmentally sustainable world.


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