The Environmental Impact of our Digital Devices
Electronic waste has a severe impact on the environment, so it’s time to rethink our current methods of electronics disposal.
As one of the fastest-growing waste streams in the United States and globally, electronic waste (e-waste) poses unique challenges to the environment that must be mitigated.
According to the EPA, around 2.7 million tons of e-waste were generated in the United States in 2018, so one can only imagine how high that figure has gotten since their last report. Moreover, they found that in 2013, the average American household had 28 electronic products, on average. All of those old computers, laptops, cell phones and monitors end up being designated as e-waste at one point or another, sometimes much earlier than anticipated.
Top Environmental Hazards Caused by Digital Electronics
The massive quantities of e-waste generated in the United States and worldwide pose a significant number of challenges to the environment, such as polluting the soil, water and air due to the leaching of rare earth minerals commonly used in electronics manufacturing.
The environmental hazards that digital electronics can cause don’t only come from e-waste, however, as the impact to the environment can happen at various stages of a specific device’s lifecycle. Below are some of the hazards posed at some of these lifecycle stages:
All electronics manufacturing requires raw resources mined from around the world, some of which are hazardous and may be mined using child labor. Even when mined ethically, there are many negative environmental externalities caused by mining.
Some of the metals mined for modern electronics include cobalt, platinum and gold, but beryllium, lead, copper, aluminum and many other metals are often required for microchips and circuit boards.
- Material Production
After the rare earth minerals and metal ores have been extracted and supplied to electronics manufacturers, they are converted into usable components. This often involves the heavy use of resources such as energy in order to process circuit boards and other components.
The manufacturing process for modern electronics creates a significant environmental impact all on its own. Intel estimated in 2015 that around nine billion gallons of water were consumed every day in their manufacturing processes. All of this water must then be treated, but its immediate consumption also impacts the environment.
The logistics and supply chains for modern electronics is complex and global, so inevitably there must be heavy use of fuels to ship components back and forth around the world. Packaging also requires many plastics to secure products en route to various destinations such as wholesalers or retailers and ultimately to end customers.
- Running Costs
While most of the environmental impacts of electronics are caused by the manufacturing and disposal of the devices, there is still an impact created by devices while in use that is not negligible. Data center infrastructure, for example, requires resources such as cooling to prevent overheating, and all devices need electricity to be charged.
The end of a device’s lifespan (or even earlier if it is tossed away) is when it is normally designated as e-waste. The toxic metals found in modern electronics leach into ground soils and pollute the environment and negatively affect local communities, especially in the developing world where much of the US’ e-waste is shipped to for disposal.
How do Smartphones & Computers Impact the Environment?
The environmental impact of digital devices such as computers and smartphones is severe and must be addressed sooner rather than later. Every device discarded poses a threat to the environment, which is why the job of reducing e-waste will inevitably need to be a concerted effort of communities and organizations with many stakeholders involved. E-waste disposal laws are increasingly being passed in many states in the US to curb or punish improper disposal of electronics, for example.
How Refurbished Electronics Impact the Environment
The biggest negative impacts to the environment from electronics come from manufacturing and disposal, so methods of reducing either (or both) of these can be beneficial. Reducing disposal, for example, can be done by choosing certified electronics recyclers or refurbishing the device when possible to do so. An ITAD company such as Wisetek can help with both of these services.
In addition to reducing e-waste, refurbished electronics also help to push for more environmental responsibility without sacrificing on the utility of modern electronics. See Wisetek’s circular economy model and our environmental policy to learn how our organization and yours can become greener.
IT Asset Disposition (ITAD) and the Circular Economy
A working circular economy model is something that many businesses should strive for, and that is especially challenging and all the more important for businesses that operate with large quantities of IT assets due to all of the aforementioned environmental hazards posed by modern electronics.
An ITAD strategy can help your organization better address the challenges of e-waste by evaluating the current situation regarding your IT assets and methods of disposal, as well as seeking environmentally friendly methods of disposal such as recycling or refurbishment.
Refurbished electronics are generally preferable to recycling, so long as the IT asset can feasibly be refurbished. For corporate-owned devices, it’s also important to have all sensitive data securely destroyed which is why it is essential to work with an ITAD company such as Wisetek.
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