A comprehensive look at the impact of creating and disposing of electronics.
With technology advancing at break-neck pace, electronic waste is piling up. Tech companies make millions off the latest, greatest tech built up by release dates and social media hype. As a tech company, it pays to have new tech come out as often as possible to stay at the forefront of the consumer’s mind and give everyone something to talk about on social media. The consumer loves the idea of being part of this celebration and so, tech companies continue to ride the wave of hype and make sure products can be released on a regular basis. The problem is the creation of all of this new technology and the disposal of the “old” technology is putting a strain on resources and the by-products of these processes are poisoning the environment. The lifespan of a CPU was 4-6 years in 1997, in 2005 the lifespan was 2 years. Seems counter-intuitive, right? With technology getting better it should last longer. Not if you are a tech company and you want to make sure you can release the next thing within a year. Welcome to Western consumerism.
To create 1 ton of laptops, 10 tons of carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere. By 2040, carbon emission from the production of electronics will reach 14% of total world-wide emission. This includes mining the raw materials for the technology, as well as, the actual manufacturing process. Electronics contain sixty or more elements in various compounds, including precious metals, such as gold, copper and nickel, as well as rare Earth elements, such as indium and palladium. The creation of electronics and the improper recycling of them, is resulting in a significant loss of scarce and valuable raw materials, including neodymium, platinum, ruthenium indium (in flat screen TVs) and cobalt (batteries). One thing must be understood about minerals; they are finite. That is to say, the materials trapped in the Earth’s crust have been there since the creation of the Earth and they are not replenished. What we have is what we have and when it is gone, it is gone. Earth is a closed system; The only thing that can come and go, and must for life to exist, is energy in the form of light and heat (think the sun). 7% of the world’s gold is in the electronics we have already created. There is 100 times more gold in a ton of mobile devices than in a ton of gold ore. Extending the life of electronics and/or harvesting the resources from them, is far more sustainable than the current system, not to mention has a larger economic benefit. Eventually there will be no more gold in Earth’s crust to mine, the only gold available to us will be in the products we have already created.
Electronic waste is the largest growing waste stream in the world, with 50 millions tons of electronic waste being produced every year (50% of that is produced in the US and Europe). Annually electronic waste is worth $62.5 billion, which is more than the GDP of most countries. Here’s the kicker: most of it works. It is being thrown out, because everyone wants the latest, greatest tech and everyone rushed to replace their working tech from last year. Only 20% of the electronic waste produced is recycled properly. In the past, the Western world’s electronic waste has been shipped to developing nations around the world. This is no longer an option and so the Western world is scrambling to reevaluate our recycling programs, electronic and otherwise. Though this is changing, large amounts of electronic waste continue to be illegally shipped to developing countries, despite its regulation under the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. Once there, recycling is done in informal, crude electronic recycling facilities where women and children make up 30% of the workforce. Many studies show increases in miscarriage, still and premature births, reduced birth weights and lengths in women exposed to electronic waste. In most low- and middle-income countries, handling and disposal of electronic waste is unregulated.
Most electronic waste is simply land-filled. Electronic waste does not biodegrade and is considered toxic, due to the inclusion of heavy metals, such as arsenic, lead and mercury. These heavy metals and flame retardants leach into the soil, contaminating underlying groundwater or crops that may be planted in the soil. Much of the soil contamination is persistent and the pollutants remain in the soil for a long time, with some reacting with other chemicals in the environment to form even more toxic compounds. As rain water passes through the contaminated soil, it picks up heavy metals and other pollutants and carries it into the water system traveling hundreds of miles. This leads to acidification and toxification of the water, which has adverse effects on ecosystems at a level that extends far from the communities where the electronic waste is. Most people are aware that arsenic is a poison, but most do not know it is a heavy metal. Life does not tolerate heavy metals, even in small amounts. Plants can suffer from damaged cell structure and altered metabolism which leads to reduced growth and/or death. Lead can coat the surface of the plant, reducing photosynthesis. Animals that consume these plants also become toxic. Toxins travel up the food chain and accumulate within the animals ingesting the plants. Over time the animal accumulates enough of the toxin to kill it. This is called bio-accumulation. The larger the animal, the more the impact because of the amount of the toxin it eats to sustain life. This causes complex disruptions to an ecosystem. Why does this matter to us? We are a large animal and we are omnivores, which means we get a significant amount of these toxins between the meat and plants we eat. We are a part of the ecosystem (which some will find that shocking).
There is another, largely unseen, and arguably more important, consequence of electronic consumption. The minerals in our electronic devices are being mine in conditions that are inhumane, and often financially support rebel groups and terrorist organizations at the cost of human life and dignity. Most are familiar with “blood diamonds” thanks to the movie of the same name that showed the reality of civil war in Sierra Leone and the economic power of the resources there. There are many countries in the world where the same scenario is playing out with many different minerals that aren’t as well known, or as sexy, as diamonds. By buying electronics we, in the Western world, are supporting those rebel groups and terrorists organizations. While some companies, like Apple, have taken steps to verify minerals are being sourced legally and humanely, this process is slow and difficult to regulate. Ultimately, it is up to us, as consumers, to make better choices when buying and disposing of electronics.
A circular economy approach needs to be implemented and invested in at all levels of society, starting with you. A circular economy is a “system in which all materials and components are kept at their highest value at all times and waste is designed out of the system”. If just the raw materials from 1.46 billion smartphones manufactured in 2017 were recycled they would be worth $11.5 billion. A circular economy for electronics could reduce the costs for consumers by 7% by 2030 and 14% by 2040. Recycling metals is 2 to 10 times more energy efficient and cheaper than mining. That savings will ultimately trickle down to the consumer. Reducing the need for mining will also help to remove a source of funding for groups perpetuating inhumane practices by exploiting the resources and people of certain regions. The simple fact is we are struggling to find ways to deal with the waste we produce. The practices of yesterday are no longer viable as China and other countries have banned imports of US garbage. We cannot continue to bury our trash or ship it to other countries for them to deal with, we have to re-use what we can or we will literally be up to our eyeballs in trash. The beautiful thing about this scenario is we, the consumer, ultimately guide companies. Stop and think the next time you are buying or disposing of electronics. Your choice, however small it may seem, matters.
https://www.npr.org/2018/03/15/594062903/how-cobalt-metal-affects-big-tech-firms-like-apple https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2018/03/06/591265523/cobalt-rare-and-everywhere https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/business/batteries/congo-cobalt-mining-for-lithium-ion-battery/ https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127740457 https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2019-4-july-august/feature/us-recycling-system-garbage
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