The cost of the new iPhone X starts at $999, a price many consumers eagerly pay to keep up with the digital revolution.

But what is the true cost of a new iPhone, smartphone, laptop, tablet or laptop? A hint? It’s not measured in dollars.

Electronic devices promise better information, communication, entertainment, and, maybe, even a password to the elusive world of being cool.

But, hidden to most is the darker, side digital: rampant environmental destruction, health tragedies and an overseas workforce making devices in slave-like labor.

In the latest Salem Progressive Film Series movie, director Sue Williams sheds light on the industry in her 2016 investigative film, “Death by Design.”

Following the film, two speakers will offer options in recycling, reusing and repairing their devices to cut down on the waste.

Speakers are Jared Wimp, electronics recycling technician at the Salem-based Garten’s Electronic & Reuse Store, and Kyle Wiens, co-founder of “I Fix It,” a small business that teaches people how to fix anything. Wiens will be “Skyped” in to talk.

In “Death by Design” viewers learn their adored devices leave a wake of damaged lives, toxic waste plus mountains of discarded items designed to die.

It’s no small problem. More than 2.1 billion people (one-third of the population) are expected to have a smartphone by 2020. While that might be a capitalist dream come true, it poses an enormous pressure on the planet and contributes to climate change.

If consumers might be loathed to give up their devices they should at least know the consequences of them, said Chinese environmentalist Ma Jun, in the film.

So, just five minutes into the film viewers see toxic sludge from a phone factory dumped from open pipes directly into a river. They later watch as babies play in an outdoor computer dump and recycling outfit that defies all conventions of cleanliness and safety.

Wilson takes viewers to Silicon Valley, and the launching of Intel and Microsoft factories that ignited the digital age. At the time, the industry told people it was all clean, as clean as a hospital, said Ted Smith, founder of Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

But it was far from clean. Manufacturing involves an arsenal of chemicals, including arsenic, asbestos, chromium and other toxins. Workers were not protected and never told they were being exposed. Many got ill or gave birth to babies with severe disabilities.

Further, waste and chemicals were stored and buried in tanks that soon dissolved from the corrosive solvents. Dozens of IBM, Hewlett Packard, Intel factories, and storage areas are EPA Superfund sites, including 23 in Santa Clara County alone.

Apple and other companies now outsource their manufacturing to factories in China where workers often toil 12-15 hours per day, seven days a week, often without breaks. Conditions are so depressing that in one plant (an Apple outsource) 26 workers jumped off the roof and 18 died.

Their pay is so low that labor makes up barely 1 percent of an iPhone’s cost.

Bucking the trend of buying the latest gadget is certainly not impossible but it can be difficult.

Companies intentionally make devices so they can’t be fixed or upgraded, and that makes it hard for consumers who want to be more environmentally conscious, said Wimp of Garten’s Electronics & Reuse Store.

He urges people to take a closer look at what they already have before running out to buy the “latest and greatest.”

Consumers have more power than they realize to demand what they want, including “green” phones and manufacturing practices that don’t result in rampant pollution, several in the film say.

As one speaker in the film says more gains in the digital revolution should not “rob us of our health and the planet.”


“Death by Design”

Directed by Sue Williams
1 hour, 13 minutes

7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 21

Grand Theatre
191 High St. NE, Salem
Salem Progressive Film Series