In 2018, more than 400 million new desktop computers, laptops, and tablets shipped worldwide, playing a key role in making business faster and more efficient. And that does not include printers, displays, smartphones, network equipment, servers, and other devices we depend on to do business.
But, the fact is, our dependence on digital technology has an impact on the environment, both globally and locally in different parts of the world. These effects, throughout the full lifecycle from birth to earth, must be considered. The following are the top six ways digital electronics threaten the environment.
Some sources estimate that 320 tons of gold are used in digital electronics every year. We also use large quantities of steel and aluminum for computer cases, as well as copper for wiring and other electrical conductors.
And then there are the “rare earth” materials that are essential to digital electronics. These substances are key to components such as hard drives, batteries, and displays. In spite of their name, the materials are quite common on Earth—some are about as common as copper, for example—but they are extremely difficult to process.
All of those substances come from mines. Mining creates enormous amounts of unwanted waste material that can alter landscapes and damage ecosystems. The digging also releases unwanted toxins into the environment. For example, cyanide and mercury are common byproducts of gold mining that can contribute to contaminated water supplies.
Many developed nations have regulations to limit the pollution from mining activities. For example, the United States has the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and other legislation designed to limit toxic byproducts from mining. In emerging economies, however, laws and regulations may be poorly enforced, if there are any relevant laws at all.
Getting the raw materials out of the ground is just the first step; to be useful, they must be processed and refined. Rare earth materials typically require repeated treatments with strong acids in order to separate them from unwanted substances, which creates a huge waste disposal problem.
Processing metal ores typically requires large amounts of energy to extract and purify the metal. Steel and aluminum require additional energy to create the alloys with the strength and flexibility characteristics that computer equipment requires.
Another group of materials to consider at this step is plastics. Plastics are polymers—long chains of carbon-based molecules—that are synthesized from simpler carbon compounds such as ethylene and propylene. For the most part, these are byproducts of the processing fossil fuels, including crude oil, natural gas, and coal. Plastic production creates its own byproducts and waste, much of which can be toxic, such as sulfur and nitrous oxides.
The raw materials and processed ores are then used to manufacture the components used in our digital electronics devices. A certain amount of waste is produced at this stage, as sheets of metal are cut into parts. Other steps in manufacturing have environmental costs as well.
Many parts of a digital assembly—from a hard drive to a smartphone—need repeated cleaning and treatment, often requiring the use of toxic solvents. Even when a harmless solvent such as water is used, however, it becomes loaded with harmful chemicals such as heavy metals. A typical semiconductor chip fab uses between 2 and 4 million gallons of water per day. Some of this water is cleaned, but that does not happen in all cases, resulting in damage to the local water supplies.
We tend to think of freight containers filled with finished products. However, the shipping bill has been building ever since the first mining machines were delivered to the mines at the start of this process.
It takes energy to move an object from here to there. Much of electronic equipment is transported by ocean freighters in shipping containers, which is one of the most efficient means available, but it adds up. (About 90 percent of global trade travels at least part of its journey on ships.) While efficient, ships use low-grade fuel oil that contains sulfur and can be highly polluting.
The digital devices are also protected from damage during transport, so they are packaged carefully. Over the years, packaging has become more efficient, requiring less space, so more pieces fit per container. And strides have been made toward making the packaging recyclable, but that does not matter if those materials don’t make it into an effective recycling stream after delivery to the end user.
All these steps have environmental impacts before the device is even plugged in and turned on. Once you power up the computer, the impact takes on a whole new dimension.
If you use 100 watts as the average, then imagine the amount of heat generated by 40 100-watt light bulbs in one room. For a typical eight-hour workday, this would require 32 kilowatt hours.
Now imagine 10 million such rooms; this represents the number of new computers that shipped in 2018. The required electricity totals 320 gigawatt hours. Given that the average useful lifespan for a desktop computer is three to five years, the total power consumption could be as much as five times that much.
Generating that power comes with its own environmental impact, whether by using fossil fuels, nuclear energy, or “renewable” sources such as wind or solar.
But wait, there’s more. The computers don’t convert all that energy into pure data processing power; a large amount is given off as heat. Both people and computers behave unreliably when they get too hot, so you also have to add temperature control systems to the mix. And air conditioning requires additional power to maintain comfortable working temperatures.
We’re finally nearing the end of the supply chain, but some of the same environmental costs are waiting to take their cut on the way out as well. There are transportation costs involved in disposing of the millions of digital electronics devices that are taken out of service every year.
Unfortunately, far too much of this material ends up in the normal waste stream and winds up in landfills. Few of these materials biodegrade, plus many materials succumb to corrosion and other destructive forces. They can release heavy metals and other toxins that can eventually find their way into water supplies, rivers, and even the oceans. This includes plastics; almost all plastics used in electronics are not biodegradable, though they can be recycled.
Efforts are made to recycle electronic equipment, but it is a complex and expensive process. A significant portion of the waste is shipped to China and developing countries where environmental safety standards are lacking or unenforced, and untrained people attempt to recover gold and other materials from the electronic trash. This often includes open-air burning, which can release harmful particulates, heavy metals, and toxic chemicals.
Responsible recycling can recoup some of the investment of energy and materials that went into the construction of these devices. There are processes that can minimize the pollution that comes from breaking down the components, but finding a qualified service provider can be difficult. One solution is to find recyclers that are certified by e-Stewards or similar organizations.
While digital electronics have a negative impact on the environment, it’s not all bad news. Digital controls make building heating and cooling systems far more efficient. Electronics help cars and trucks use less fuel and make electric-powered vehicles possible, which can reduce local pollution. But we need to be mindful of the negative effects and do what we can to reduce the damage done by our dependency on digital technology.
Environmental threats of tech: Lessons for leaders
- Make the most efficient use possible of existing digital electronics.
- Be sure to re-use/refurbish retired IT equipment, and recycle where necessary using responsible recycling services.
- Choosing more energy-efficient products can save money while minimizing environmental impact.