The production, consumption and disposal of the digital world has considerable environmental impacts. Hodgson (2015) states that global data centres are producing the same amount of emissions as aviation. E-waste and the ways in which to manage it are contestable. In 1998 electrical and electronic waste was estimated to be 6 million tonnes and thought to be increasing by at least 3–5% per year (Berkhout and Hertin, 2004). As more digital devices are being produced, there is an increase in waste, pollution and the natural resources that are being used. It takes 530 pounds of fossil fuels, 48 pounds of chemicals, and 1.5 tons of water to make one computer and monitor (Pickren, 2014). The current culture of constantly upgrading technology and buying new products means that there is an abundance of e-waste. A large proportion of this waste ends up being transported to the global south. Informal sites then dismantle and dispose of the waste, releasing more toxins into the environment. However, the digital world has also benefitted the environment through de-materialisation and technological advances which have less environmental impact.
Production and Consumption
The digital world has direct and indirect impacts on the environment through its production, consumption and disposal of waste. One of these direct impacts is the material used to make the products themselves as the components used are often harmful to the environment. The production of these devices have come under critique due to the fact that they contain toxins and are difficult to repair (Pickren, 2014). The production of these digital devices result in pollution and waste. Berkhout and Hertin (2004) highlight that 98% of the material used in PC production goes into the waste stream and only 2% becomes part of the product. The components within a computer are sourced from around the world. This means that before the product is constructed the materials within it would have typically been transported hundreds of miles. The energy used to transport the materials, plus the amount of pollution this would create, implies that before the product has even been made it has already caused environmental damage. One of the indirect impacts which results from the production is the fact that the materials used are difficult to recycle. Lead, chromium, mercury, polyvinyl chloride plastics (PVCs), and brominated-flame retardants (BFRs) can all be found in e-waste (Pickren, 2014). Producers of digital devices are now being challenged to use products that are less environmentally damaging and easier to recycle.
The consumption of digital products are also detrimental to the environment, particularly as we live in a society which wants newer, faster and more advanced technology. The nature of this consumption means that there is a high turnover of devices. For example, mobile phones are typically bought every two years in industrialised countries (UNEP, 2005). Producers of computers and phones fuel the idea to keep buying new technologies. An example of this can be seen where both Apple and Samsung have been accused and fined for purposefully slowing down phones. This has contributed towards the wasteful disposal of products and high turnover of devices. It is more convenient for a customer to repurchase a product rather than trying to repair them and continue using an older device. It can also be less expensive as the cost of purchasing technology has decreased (Gibbs, 2018: Berkhout and Hertin, 2004). Another indirect impact of the digital world on the environment is the amount of electricity that is consumed. Electricity is generally generated by fossil fuels which is unsustainable and contributes towards pollution (Berkhout and Hertin, 2004). The amount of electricity being used in order to keep devices powered is undoubtedly having a negative impact on the environment. Having said this, the move towards ‘greener’ and renewable energies might alleviate the problem of electrical use. The impacts of the digital world on the environment is currently not well understood as people want to consume more and do not realise the e-waste that they are creating (Hodgson, 2015). There is inadequate data on the links between the digital world and the environment. People tend to assume that the move towards digitalisation is more environmentally friendly as, for example, digitalisation has led to less paper resources. However, the material and energy which comes with digitalisation is often forgotten (Berkhout and Hertin, 2004).
E-waste has become one of the fastest growing parts of the waste stream, with an estimated 20 to 50 million metric tons being generated each year worldwide (UNEP, 2005). The disposal of computers and mobile phones mainly end up in either landfills or in informal sites located in the global south. Developing countries remove themselves from the problem of waste by giving the global south their goods as either charity or as e-waste. Waste is sent to the global south due to there being less environmental protection laws and because it is mostly unregulated. The chemical processes that are used to recover some of the-waste is extremely hazardous on both the environment and health (Pickren, 2014). This has caused problems in the regions as the waste has resulted in polluted rivers and toxic materials being released into the environment (UNEP, 2005). There have been multiple case studies on these informal sites in countries such as in Peru and Ghana (Amoyaw-Osei et al., 2011). The waste found in sites, such as the one in Ghana, often underwent some form of further production. Various different items, such as household utensils and toys, are being produced with the disposal of the e-waste. A case study in Bangladesh found that almost everything had value (Lepawsky and Mather, 2011). Workers in these informal sites can benefit from the e-waste as they can find precious materials and re-purpose them into something else. However, the average consumer is not aware of their responsibility to these informal sites (Pickren, 2014). It is not something that is widely known and perhaps if it was there would be more regulations in place to protect the environment and the individuals who work in these informal sites.
Has the Environment Benefitted from the Digital World?
There are some noticeable positives that the digital world has created for the environment, although a lot of these benefits have been indirect. Indirect impacts on the environment include de-materialisation, which can be seen with the trend of moving paper records to an electronic form. De-materialisation has led to greater efficiencies and an increasing amount of services and products are becoming digitalised. For example, music and film can now be streamed and ebooks can be downloaded. This has decreased the amount of actual product such as CD’s, DVD’s and books. This means that there is less environmental damage with the production and disposal as there is no physical product. However, it has driven sales of MP3 players, laptops and Kindles. The digital world can also be used in design as Berkhout and Hertin (2004) add that the amount of aluminium being used in cans was halved due to computer aided design. In this sense the digital world can be a solution to environmental issues. The need to reduce costs and be more efficient has often indirectly led to less polluting products and less damage to the environment. People often favour ‘greener’ products and services such as reducing the need for printing and not wasting paper and ink. It also has enabled benefits in communication such as through the use of emails and conference calls. This has decreased the amount people need to travel for business, which undoubtedly has benefits for the environment due to less pollution. Working at home is another option that has vast environmental benefits which is available due to the digitalisation of the work space (Berkhout and Hertin, 2004). Maybe the digital world can help us protect the environment?
Data on the environmental impacts of the digital world are scarce. As the problem continues to grow through the production of more digital devices it is evident that some form of regulation needs to take effect. These regulations would have to be implemented at the different stages of a digital devices lifespan. The production of these devices needs to take into consideration the materials they are using and how straightforward they are to recycle. Companies need to insure that they create products that have a longer life span but also to make repairing products more accessible and affordable. Producers and consumers alike have to take responsibility for informal sites in the global south. Regulating these sites would make considerable difference to the environment and to the working conditions. The environmental impact of e-waste needs to be more transparent in order to affect consumer behaviour. However, the digital world has unarguably benefitted the environmental through de-materialisation and the rise of communicative technologies. Therefore, the digital world can be used to preserve the environment but has to be managed so that the environmental impacts are minimal and so that e-waste can be drastically reduced.
- Amoyaw-Osei, Y., Agyekum, O.O., Pwamang, J.A., Mueller, E., Fasko, E. and Schluep, M. (2011). Ghana E-Waste Country Assessment. Basel: Secretariat of the Basel Convention e-Waste Africa Project.
- Berkhout, F. and Hertin, J. (2004). De-Materialising and Re-Materialising: Digital Technologies and the Environment. Futures, 36(8), pp. 903-920.
- Gibbs, S. (2018). Apple and Samsung Fined for Deliberately Slowing Down Phones. The Guardian, October 24.
- Hodgson, C. (2015). Can the Digital Revolution be Environmentally Sustainable? The Guardian, November 13.
- Lepawsky, J. and Mather, C. (2011). From Beginnings and Endings to Boundaries and Edges: Rethinking Circulation and Exchange through Electronic Waste. Area, 43(3), pp. 242-249.
- Pickren, G. (2014). Geographies of E-Waste: Towards a Political Ecology Approach to E-Waste and Digital Technologies. Geography Compass, 8(2), pp. 111-124.
- United Nations Environment Programme (2005). E-Waste, the Hidden Side of IT Equipment’s Manufacturing and Use [online]. Kenya: United Nations Environment Programme. http://www.grid.unep.ch/products/3_Reports/ew_ewaste.en.pdf. Accessed 16 November 2018.
Ciara Mc Fadden is currently an undergraduate student in the Bachelor of Sciences (Applied Social Sciences) Degree Programme at the National University of Ireland Galway