Carla Carlisle on the dangers of e-waste

It came on late at night on one of those channels that I only find by chance. Billed as ‘the last interview I will ever give’, it was John le Carré in conversation with Jon Snow. A Perfect Spy is one of my Desert Island books. There are scenes in it you never forget. I’m always mystified that Mr le Carré is considered the stepchild to Graham Greene, because I think he is a much more reliable guide, evoking a sense of place, time and character. His work shines with integrity, intelligence and non-patronising comprehension.

The interview began with a sweeping view of the writer’s low, white house perched on a granite peninsula by the sea in Cornwall, followed by a brief shot over the breakfast table, then upstairs to a contemplative space devoid of electronic intrusion. This is where Mr le Carré writes. In long hand. The tools of his trade are pen and paper, scissors and a stapler. When the first draft is complete, his wife, Jane, types it and the editing begins again. She is like Sophia Tolstoy, but, unlike Tolstoy, Mr le Carré is generous in his praise for his wife’s pivotal role in his books.

The comparison isn’t so absurd, because a writer writing in pen and ink in this age is Tolstoyan. I’m writing about Mr le Carré on a new Apple iMac, which I bought from John Lewis three weeks before the increase in VAT. The screen is 21in, sleek and beautiful. Without leaving my desk, I could make a great film, learn to play the guitar, record my own songs, create a website or video-conference with my son in Edinburgh or my cousin Jamie in California.

In fact, I do none of these things. I rarely stray from email and Microsoft Word. Compared with Mr le Carré, I am overwired. Compared with today’s university students, who live in an electronic cocoon of laptop, mobile phone and iPod, I am antediluvian.

I am also guilt-ridden. There is a dark side to my elegant, faster-than-ever new computer. It’s the cloud caused by the millions of tons of discarded electronic devices that end in landfills every year, mountains of waste where toxic metals, including lead, mercury and cadmium, make their way into the soil, the water tables and the air. America throws out nearly two million tons a year. Reports now reveal high rates of birth defects, infant mortality and blood diseases in China, which produces a million tons of e-waste annually and imports 70% of the world’s lethal garbage.

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Google ‘Britain’s e-waste’ and your heart will sink like a stone. We send it to Africa. Those National Geographic pictures of children in Ghana scrounging through burning e-waste dumps in search of precious metals are probably going through the latest shipment of old computers from the Ministry of Defence.

It’s a sobering story, one that has elements of Mr le Carré’s later thrillers, when the Cold War is replaced by the war waged against the planet by the very people who live on it and off it. It’s a complicated dilemma. What do you do when your aged Apple computer no longer recognises all the new software?

I added memory each year, but, after eight years, obsolescence won out. As for my ‘free’ annual upgrade for my mobile phone, I stopped that when I learned that mining gold for the circuitboard of a single mobile phone generates 220lb of waste.

The day may come when it’s considered morally incorrect to continually upgrade our electronic lives. Meanwhile, as much as I wish I could write a thriller about the world of rich countries dumping their poisonous waste on the poor, I know it wouldn’t be in pen and ink.

So all I can do is store the flotsam and jetsam of my electronic past in the attic. It’s not a real solution, but, as Mr le Carré reminds Jon Snow, there are no easy answers to the old questions-Is it just? Is it right? Will it bring about a better world?-but we must keep asking the questions.