It was The Insider gone digital: One morning last summer, Ted Smith opened his email and found a PowerPoint presentation prepared by the Sony Corporation for an electronics-industry conference. The document, mailed to him anonymously, suggested that companies hire an online agency to investigate environmental groups targeting the high-tech industry. Topping a list of what Sony called “well-organized groups” with “global reach” was the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, the San Jose-based organization Smith leads. “It was a vote of confidence in a way,” Smith jokes. “But you know that if they poke around, they’ll find that it’s only smoke and mirrors.”
Actually, what Sony’s emissaries would find if they were to investigate Smith’s 10-person operation is a local activist group that has found itself going global along with the industry it monitors. Founded in 1982 — after Smith’s wife, attorney Amanda Hawes, noticed that more and more of her clients were complaining about health problems caused by their exposure to hazardous chemicals in semiconductor factories — the Toxics Coalition has made a name for itself by publicizing what it calls “the dark side of high-tech development” worldwide.
“People are always trying to solve yesterday’s problem,” says Smith, a union organizer turned attorney. “But this industry is inventing tomorrow’s problems.” Among the most pressing of those problems, says Smith, is the growing pile of hazardous electronics waste accumulating in warehouses, attics, and offices worldwide. The National Safety Council estimates that only 11 percent of the computers discarded in the United States are recycled; the rest are either stored by their owners or find their way into landfills, where they can contribute to groundwater contamination. A single crushed monitor, for example, may leach as many as eight pounds of lead; a motherboard may contain any of 700 toxic substances including mercury, cadmium, and chromium.
Last year the coalition joined other environmental groups in support of a European Union proposal that would require manufacturers to take back and dispose of each computer they sell. The measure passed despite fierce opposition from industry and the Clinton administration; now, interest in reducing computer waste is building stateside as well. Massachusetts banned used monitors from landfills last year, and six other states are now considering similar proposals.
All this has made the coalition a formidable — if not always welcome — presence on its home turf. “Ted Smith has been a major source of disinformation in the valley,” says John Greenagel, a spokesman for electronics manufacturer AMD. “He’s demonized the industry — and that hasn’t harmed his wife’s law practice.”
Hawes is representing some 200 former workers and their families in a lawsuit against IBM scheduled to go to trial early this year. But Smith dismisses the criticism: “I’m the one out there raising hell,” he says. “She’s the one who scares them the most.”