Electronics companies’ pollution control probed

IBM, HP and other major electronics companies are failing to ensure developing country suppliers have adequate pollution control systems in place, claims a Greenpeace report.1 The group says it found evidence of chemical contamination at sites in Asia and Mexico.

Greenpeace tested effluent and groundwater samples from 19 sites in China, Thailand, the Philippines and Mexico which it took between November 2005 and June 2006. Most of the facilities tested in Asian countries were ‘tier one’ suppliers operated by local firms largely unknown in the UK. They manufacture components such as semiconductor chips and printed wiring boards.

Sites tested in Mexico were higher tier equipment assembly plants owned by household names IBM, HP, Sony and Sanyo.

At several of the component manufacturing sites, Greenpeace discovered discharges containing a cocktail of hazardous chemicals including polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) used as flame retardants, phthalate plasticisers, chlorinated solvents and metals.

Wastewater samples at the Compeq facility in Boluo county, China, contained high concentrations of copper, which is widely used in the manufacture of circuit boards. At the nearby Fortune site, the phosphorus-based flame retardant triphenyl phosphate was found, as well as a range of PBDEs.

At the Elec and Eltek site in Pathumthani, Thailand, wastewater contained twice the levels of copper permitted under local law. Samples from Rojana’s site in Ayuttaya, also in Thailand, contained phthalates including the endocrine disruptor DEHP.

Groundwater contamination was also found at the Cavite Export Processing Zone in the Philippines. In one sample, levels of ethylene exceeded maximum levels for drinking water set by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Levels of tetrachloroethene in another sample were 70 times the EPA’s standard.

In wastewater discharged from a site shared by IBM, Sanmina-SCI and Hitachi at Guadalajara, Mexico, Greenpeace found nonyl phenols, DEHP and PBDEs. IBM denies the chemicals came from its site.

Greenpeace acknowledges the limitations of the survey, which was only meant to provide a snapshot of performance. At industrial estates, sampled discharges came from a number of facilities. At other sites, only groundwater samples could be taken.

Nevertheless, the findings suggest sites in developing countries do not have effective wastewater treatment plants. Greenpeace concludes: "The use of hazardous chemicals and practices in the manufacture of electronic equipment is resulting in contamination of the environment."

The group argues the findings damage the whole industry’s reputation because brand owners refuse to disclose their suppliers’ identities. Campaigner Zeina Alhajj said: "There is shockingly little information of precisely which major brand companies are supplied by which manufacturing facilities. There has to be full transparency in the supply chain, so that brand owners are forced to take responsibility for the environmental impacts of producing their goods."

IBM and HP both declined to disclose their suppliers.

Computer giant Dell, which is not named in the report, says it does not use any of the suppliers involved. "There is sensitivity around manufacturers losing their competitive advantage if details of supplier relationships are made public," it said.

Legislation on waste and hazardous substances and attacks on brand reputation have increased pressure on the electronics industry to improve supply-chain management (ENDS Report 379, p 23 ).

A key industry response is the Electronics Industry Code of Conduct (EICC), published in 2004 and adopted by 26 firms including Dell, IBM and HP.2The code sets out requirements on environmental and ethical performance. It says wastewater should be "monitored, controlled and treated as required prior to discharge or disposal."

The code is backed by a supplier self-assessment questionnaire that asks, for instance, how wastewater is treated and whether the company is committed to reducing effluent releases. The assessment can be audited and the results shared through an EICC database.

EICC spokeswoman, Laura Commike of facilitator Business for Social Responsibility, said the code is still in an "early phase" of implementation, but "many" suppliers have been asked to complete assessments. The EICC has carried out a pilot programme of audits, including 17 in China but has not published targets to judge progress and show credibility.

HP said it "sets clear expectations for our suppliers with regards to environmental responsibility… HP regularly audits suppliers and works with them on corrective action plans." It said it has carried out 300 audits of tier one component suppliers worldwide.

Dell said all of its tier one suppliers are required to meet international environmental management standard ISO14001 and comply with the EICC code. "Dell expects its suppliers to attain the same high standards no matter where they are located," it said.