Since humans learned to make stone tools two million years ago, through the Industrial Revolution, technology has been catalyzing positive global growth. We all know that technology can do some wonderful things.
Sustained technological advancement is essential for the development of our species. And, as history has shown us, technology can have profound implications for our future. However, we cannot fail to consider the negative impact of technology on the environment.
When we think about technology, the first thing that comes to mind may be the devices that most of us carry with us and use daily. Smartphones, tablets, and laptops have revolutionized the way we live – and many would argue that they have brought us numerous benefits. But there is no denying that these everyday technologies have significant environmental impacts.
These and other modern electronic devices all present concerns regarding resource use, energy use, carbon footprint, and waste. When we look at the entire life cycle of our technological devices, it is easy to see why these electronic marvels are also a massive problem for our environment.
When analyzing the environmental cost of technology, it is essential to consider what materials went into making them in the first place and where those materials came from.
A considerable number of finite natural resources and precious metals go into making our electronic devices and other modern technology. The picture is complex, and the ingredients required to make just one phone come from worldwide. This can make the end-to-end analysis of natural resource degradation difficult.
However, when you begin to delve into where the different elements come from – the environmental concerns (and human costs) truly begin to mount up. Of course, mining comes with high energy consumption and a high carbon cost, all impacting climate change.
Mining is responsible for deforestation, landscape degradation, water pollution, and the release of vast quantities of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and other harmful gases and contaminants into the air2.
Colossal machinery, usually powered by fossil fuels, is generally involved, and the processes involved often use a lot of water, produce industrial effluents, and are hugely polluting. Carbon dioxide is the most significant of our greenhouse gas emissions and impacts global warming.
Evidence shows how our desires for technology and the need for rare earth minerals affect the environment. Examples of environmental problems with sourcing minerals and precious metals for technological devices and electronic equipment are everywhere you look.
Consider the issues with cobalt mines in the Congo, lithium despoiling in the Chilean desert, and lakes of toxic sludge in Inner Mongolia. And these three examples are just the tip of the iceberg.
The more you delve into the origins of the minerals and other materials required to make our everyday technologies – the more worrying and bleak the picture becomes.
On average, around 35 different materials are used in smartphones. This is just one example of everyday technology. When you begin to think about where all these different materials have come from, you begin to see the scale of the problems.
Plastic is, after silicon, the second most-used material. And as you are no doubt aware, plastic is derived from fossil fuels. Production requires high-emission techniques and poses a range of severe threats to our environment. Iron, aluminum, copper, lead, zinc, tin, nickel, and barium are the next most important materials (in terms of the percentage of the finished product).
All these things have to be mined and result in the depletion of natural resources and the destruction of natural habitats. Furthermore, miners undertaking industrial processes are often exposed to noise pollution and toxic chemicals such as sulfur dioxide, and many suffer health problems. As we have seen above, mining can carry huge environmental and human costs.
The environmental impact of technology does not end with the raw materials and where they have come from. Manufacturers require massive energy to turn them into the complex electronic and technological products we use. Transportation of these products worldwide, by planes and automobiles, also contributes to the greenhouse effect responsible for global warming and air pollution.
Of course, huge servers and data banks enabling these technologies to work also use vast amounts of energy each year. And much of that does not come from renewable energy sources. Global data center electricity demand in 2018, for example, was an estimated 198 TWh, or almost 1% of the global final demand for electricity.
Efficiency is increasing, and renewable energy projects are very much on the rise, but we still have a long way to go. This is especially true as new technologies like AI become more prevalent and more data centers are powered up to service demand.
It is also worth remembering that every time we plug an electronic device into a non-renewable source, our use of that device comes with a carbon cost. This contributes to greenhouse gases and our climate crisis. On the other hand, we're playing a small role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions when we choose to buy from or source our electricity from companies that use renewables.
The environmental costs of consumer technology do not end there. These products also pose a problem at the end of their useful lives. Globally, we are throwing away $62.5 bn of electronic waste every year.
A small proportion of old electronic devices are recycled. However, the vast majority end up in landfill sites or burned in dumps. Sadly, these dumps emit methane and other carbon emissions, and our discarded devices leach chemicals, including mercury, that blend with other wastewater contaminants such as pesticides.
A toxic mish-mash of chemicals can leach into waterways, exacerbate air and water pollution, and harm wildlife. Furthermore, these chemicals can find their way into our food chains, resulting in health hazards for humans.
These dumps are usually located out of sight, around some of the planet's poorest and most vulnerable people. Obviously, this not only endangers human health but also impacts the environment in a range of hugely negative ways.
Only around 1/5 of e-waste generated globally by human activities is currently formally recycled. Millions worldwide are believed to work unofficially to recycle the precious materials that smartphones and other such devices need. These people are often exposed to dangerous working environments, and negative health impacts and the surrounding environment can also be put at threat.
But while e-waste is currently a massive threat to our environment, it could also be viewed as a massive opportunity. We can reclaim precious metals and other minerals and metals in e-waste, which is one of the many reasons we should recycle e-waste.
Many valuable materials can be reclaimed through careful recycling processes and innovative solutions for reuse. By reclaiming them, rather than digging up more, we can reduce both the waste and the environmental harm associated with collecting new materials. This will offer us both environmental and economic benefits.
By moving away from the idea that technological items are disposable and moving towards a circular economy, we can reduce the environmental impact of technology.
A circular economy is focused on restoration and regeneration3. In such an economy, everyone is more interested in reusing materials for a more sustainable approach to consumption. But we cannot achieve a circular economy when our current technology companies heavily promote consumption.
Unfortunately, tech companies often hinder rather than help move towards a more responsible, circular economic model. Computer hardware brands, smart device brands, and marketing teams hinder efforts in various ways. For example, in the pursuit of profit, they build planned obsolescence into their products, so we must replace them after a certain period of time.
A smartphone that should last its user 4-6 years of use quickly becomes obsolete. Every year, a newer (and promised) better option is available. Some companies may even slow down the performance of those older devices or hinder repair access, encouraging buyers to make a new purchase.
Their consistent update of hardware and software and highly aggressive marketing mean that these tech companies promote hyper-consumerism. These issues can make it difficult for consumers to hold onto their devices for longer – the best way to reduce harm to the environment.
Many large tech companies also refuse to take responsibility for the adverse effects of e-waste they help create. Furthermore, given an increasing global population and the associated demand for more devices in the developing world, it's more important than ever that our technology products come complete with proper waste management in mind.
Positive change requires big shifts to be made by producing companies, governments, authorities, and individuals. Appropriate legislation can force the hands of tech companies (and consumers) and be an agent of good when it comes to the environment.
Pollution monitoring has become more commonplace, enabling governments to understand the scale of the problem.
For example, the French government is one of the few actively fighting built-in obsolescence by the tech companies operating in their jurisdiction. In 2015, the French National Assembly established fines of up to €300,000 and jail terms of up to two years for manufacturers planning the failure of their products in advance.
In 2018, after Apple admitted that they intentionally slowed down their older devices through updates, the French investigated the company under this French law.
Other governments and legislations have also sought to regulate e-waste and reduce the negative effects of technology. There is no nationwide law regarding the effects of technology on the environment in the US. But there are laws at the state level.
California was the first state to pass an e-recycling law back in 2003, and 27 other states have since followed suit. New York was the first major city to establish its own e-waste collection program. The city also placed a ban on electronics going into garbage cans. Around the world, many other jurisdictions also have laws or regulations on e-waste.
The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes1 and their Disposal is the most comprehensive international environmental agreement on hazardous and other wastes. This agreement is almost universal, with 187 Parties. But these laws, regulations, and agreements still fall short of the mark in many places.
Self-regulation by technology companies and government legislation are both extremely important. This will help further reduce the negative impact of technology on the environment.
But we, as consumers, also have to play our part given the growing environmental concerns related to our usage of technology. There are some things over which we have little control. But we can help limit the negative impact of the technology we use by:
There are many creative ways in which you can use an old smartphone. These devices already contain the software to carry out many tasks. For example, you could use an old smartphone as a:
By repurposing old technology in these sorts of ways, we can also reduce our need to buy new technology. (And all the environmental harm each new item brings).
Read more: What to do with old cell phones?
You can do this by:
It is possible for us to reduce technology's significant harm to our environment significantly. As consumers, we often have more power than we believe to reduce the depletion of resources and aid environmental protection. Less discarded devices and less harmful manufacturing add up to reduced air pollution and water pollution.
After all, if we keep buying the next technological development, they will keep being made. Whereas this is usually advantageous, by withdrawing our financial support from companies who refuse to improve their environmental footprint, we can create a more sustainable future.
|UN Environment Programme, Basel Convention: Controlling transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal|
|Mensah, A. K. , Mahiri, I. O. , Owusu, O. , Mireku, O. D. , Wireko, I. , & Kissi, E. A. (2015). Environmental Impacts of Mining: A Study of Mining Communities in Ghana. Applied Ecology and Environmental Sciences, 3(3), 81-94.|
|Geissdoerfer, Martin & Savaget, Paulo & Bocken, Nancy & Hultink, Erik. (2017). The Circular Economy – A new sustainability paradigm?. Journal of Cleaner Production. 143. 757–768. 10.1016/j.jclepro.2016.12.048.|
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.