The Environmental Impact of our Digital Devices
Our love of digital technology needs an environmental reboot.
When it comes to technology, being small and light is one of the shared goals of many companies. Smaller computers, lighter laptops, and as the technology improves and chips can be inserted in items beyond traditional devices, the world of the Internet of Things (IoT) has added a digital dimension to everything from lightbulbs to doorbells.
Yet this reverence for all things small and light ignores the big impact that our devices are having on the environment. For example, in order to serve our devices with our data demands, data centres are being rolled out around the world. One such data centre, built-in Luxemburg, requires 10 per cent of the country’s entire water supply to keep it operational.
Control, Alt, Delete
While water consumption on that level is as extraordinary as it’s shocking, we’re just shooting the messenger if we just look at data centres. We, the consumers, have our part to play. In many ways, we’re at a ‘control, alt, delete’ moment where we have to stand back and take a long hard look at our activity with a view to changing it as we go forward.
When you press control, alt, delete on your PC, you see, among other items, what processes are consuming the most resources on your computer. If we did that for devices and the environment, six key areas would come up.
First of all, there are the regular materials which are needed such as gold, steel, aluminium, and copper. These are considered regular as they don’t include the rare earth materials which are needed for hard drives, batteries, and displays.
Not only are certain materials finite, but mining itself can also be hugely damaging for the environment in terms of pollution and toxic by-products.
- Material production
Once the materials are above ground, they need processing. From treatments to purification, such materials can have a negative impact on the environment regarding the energy which they require.
Our devices also contain plastics which are carbon-based and are typically the by-products of fossil fuels which have an obvious carbon footprint.
It should be no surprise that manufacturing digital devices have an environmental impact from a waste perspective. Back in 2015, Intel estimated that it used nine billion gallons of water per day. The impact that this has is twofold: it’s not only a huge amount of water, but the water has to be cleaned once it has been used, too. And if it’s not, there is a further potential impact on the local environment.
Unlike the food at your favourite restaurant, the chances of your tablet being ‘locally produced’ is not likely. From moving the rare materials to their production sites to transporting the finished products to our stores, everything needs to be shipped. And during this process, the products require packaging to secure the items, and then more packaging when they are being displayed for the consumer … and even more packaging if they are sold online.
- Running costs
Once we have our devices to hand, there’s the aforementioned impact in terms of data centres streaming data to us, but there’s also a cost when we run and/or charge the devices. While in a domestic setting, you wouldn’t notice the heat of your PC; however, in a data centre or large office, the heat from many PCs requires rooms to be cooled, which has a further impact as air conditioning is energy heavy.
Lastly, the circle is completed and we come to the waste stage. From landfills to shipping toxic materials to developing nations to dispose of e-waste and its subsequent impact on local communities, let alone the harm that plastics are doing to our oceans, getting rid of our devices have never been so contentious.
Yet that’s where most companies come in. While it’s hard for typical consumers to inspire change in global supply chains, you have a fundamental power – purchasing power, or the desire not to.
IT Asset Disposition (ITAD) and the Circular Economy
Whether you are a small business or a large organisation, how you upgrade your devices is a simple choice and one which should be aligned to the circular economy. Embedded in your ITAD strategy, a commitment to this alternative economy is the main way you can stop the impact of digital devices on the environment.
Buying a refurbished device is a small step towards a sustainable digital economy. Also, if your IT assets are properly audited and their parts examined, you have the option to replace parts from other assets in your organisation and not to replace the entire device. Alternatively, you can source a new part from the ‘as new’ parts market, or if the device is not fit for your purpose, it might be useful to a charity.
Failing that, proper environmental recycling in line with local regulations should be the only option for its disposal … and the only way we’re going to lessen the impact that our devices are having.