A word about your new (counterfeit) gadget

We all love them, we all want them, and once we have one, we want the next one. Its newer, faster, smaller, lighter, whatever the reason, we’re snatching up the new smart phones, tablets, notebook, e-readers, gaming systems and other electronic gadgets like our lives depend on it.  But it comes at a cost.

I hesitated writing about why I left my previous job.  Did I like what I was doing?  Sure.  Did I like who I worked with?  Yep.  The pay?  That was okay too.  So what was the problem?  The real problem lies within the fact that the business supported something I don’t believe in.  Major, major consumerism.  Am I sitting here writing on a laptop?  Yes.  But do I think twice about buying the next newer, better gadget?  Absolutely.  Especially since I spent time in the electronic components industry.  Why?  Because until I got into the industry I had no idea what our purchases were doing to us and the rest of the world.

Shortly after I started the job I remember being in my car and listening to a report on National Public Radio about the e-waste situation in China.  I heard stories about women, with children in tow, working in factories, if you can call them that, sifting through mountains of electronic trash that we disposed of in the US and shipped back to China.  These mountains of trash contain lead, mercury and other toxic materials.  And these women sift through these piles with bare hands, exposing themselves to lead and mercury poisoning every day.  If that weren’t bad enough, they also take circuit boards and melt them down in facilities with no pollution controls thereby releasing toxic chemicals into the air.   The thought of this hit me hard.  I felt physically ill.  My stomach hurt.  I knew that by working in the industry and continuing to buy electronics so freely myself, I was supporting this.  But I hadn’t been at the job that long so I did what any other rational person would do.  I tried to put it out of my mind.  Don’t think about it. Forget about it.

But I couldn’t.  Every day I learned more.  Not only have we been sending our e-waste overseas, but these parts are also being sifted through, sanded down, remarked and sold back to us as new.  Counterfeit.  How is it getting in?  Easily, because there’s so much of it and because they have gotten really good at making the counterfeit parts look like the real thing.  Don’t believe that it can be that serious?  It is.  This has grown to be such an enormous problem that even our country’s defense program has been effected.  A couple of years ago counterfeit parts were found on brand new P-8 Poseidons, our military defense planes.

The sad part is, it’s getting worse, fast.  Let’s put it this way.  When I started my job in the industry a little over a year ago I’d heard a statistic that about 60% of the electronic components in the industry were being counterfeited.  At the time that estimate was released, the major concern was about “black topping”; a process where junk (e-waste parts) are sanded down, skimmed coated with new surfacing and remarked as new parts.  Now, a little over a year later, they’ve got counterfeiting down to a science.   The most recent estimate indicates that over 99% of the components made are now being counterfeited.  In other words, pretty much every component on the market has a counterfeit twin out there.  They believe that every single one of us has counterfeit components in something we own, whether that’s the phone in our pocket, the tablet in our bag or the notebook on our desk, the gaming systems in our houses, or kids hands, oh and I almost forgot, our cars.  We have a few electronic components in our cars don’t we?

The counterfeit components issue is not a minor one.  Its impacting every one of our lives every day, we just don’t realize it.  It doesn’t phase us much if our phone stops working.  Sure, it’s annoying, but we’ll just go out and get a new one, right?  The thought of something happening in our car, hmm, that makes us stop and think for a second, doesn’t it?  As a parent I get a little twinge in my stomach, as the thought crosses my mind, “What if something happened while my child was in the car?”  But when the U.S. defense system is impacted that seems to make a difference doesn’t it?  When we don’t feel like our country is safe, protected, because a system might fail from counterfeit parts that gets our attention.  And it should.  It’s that serious.

What’s being done about it? A lot.  There are meetings constantly and systems being put in place to prevent counterfeit parts from returning to our country, but much like any other injury, a band-aid only stops the bleeding, it doesn’t actually get to the root of the problem.  We are the root of the problem.

I’m not writing this as a scare tactic.  Nor am I writing this to cause alarm.  I don’t need to.  I am writing this to ask that each of us, each of you, think twice before you buy the next hottest gadget.  The root of the counterfeit problem, much as we would all like to blame China, is not China.  The reason this problem has become what it has is because of us.  Our purchasing and tossing on a whim.  Dropping $100, $200 or $500 on the latest gadget just to be dropped in the trash a few months down the road has to change.  Counterfeit parts are invading our lives and we need to take them back.

So when 3G leads to 4G which leads to 5G or whatever comes next.  Please take a moment, a conscious moment, and think about whether this is truly a need in your life or just a want.  Please, please be mindful, our future depends upon it.

Kate

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