Technology and sustainability isn’t an obvious pairing. As consumers, we don’t think about the effects that our technology has on the environment. Unlike fashion and food production, the detrimental effects of technology aren’t clear. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Technology controls our lives. We use smartphones, laptops, tablets, cars and TVs without thinking about where they come from. Our reliance on these products means we’re less concerned about exposing technology suppliers. Making changes to everyday consumption of tech would have a larger impact on our lives than buying jeans at a different store.
1. Lack of awareness
There’s a significant lack of awareness surrounding the materials and chemicals present in technology. Elements used in technological devices include lithium, cobalt, gold, copper, silver and tin. Do you know where the minerals come from and how they’re sourced? These metals are mined in developing countries, under poor conditions and have a detrimental environmental impact.
With global demand for earth metals, there’s a risk to human and environmental welfare when extracting elements. If we knew the reality of technology, would we make as much effort to change our behaviour as we do with fashion and food? We would like to think so.
2. Mining in developing countries
Niobium mined in Brazil supplies the world’s vehicles, steel structures and aeroplanes. Colombia is responsible for the mining of coltan which is used in mobile phones. These materials are extracted and shipped to China and other parts of Asia to be manufactured into technology. Tech is shipped to wealthy parts of the world with little consideration of the hazardous effects on its source country.
Ecosystems are sustained by rural and indigenous communities in developing countries. The Amazon is the world’s most important ecosystem, making it critical in maintaining the sustainability of our climate. Therefore, cleaner technology is vital to reach global standards and keep our ecosystems stable.
3. Our e-waste problem
Mining isn’t the only problem with technology. E-waste, defined as the waste produced by electronics disposal, is a huge societal issue. Approximately 50 million tonnes of e-waste will be generated globally in 2019. Half of this waste coming from smartphones, TVs, computers and tablets. The other half coming from household appliances and equipment. According to the same estimation, we only recycle 20% of e-waste each year. Meaning 40 million tonnes end up in landfills, burned or traded. Technology is made to be disposed of. That’s how technology suppliers keep going; by programming our devices to stop functioning so we have to buy replacements. Repairing technology is not always a cost-effective solution. Prices are high and it’s often easier to buy a new device than diagnose and replace broken parts. The product lifecycle is short. Usually, it’s three years for a smartphone or tablet before we buy the newest update.
This results in unnecessary extraction of earth metals and improper disposal that release harmful chemicals into our environment. Producing tech is complicated. We cannot introduce eco-friendly suppliers as easily as food and fashion can. Even if it was possible, large conglomerates dominate the tech industry. Consumers are unlikely to switch to eco-alternatives due to status and quality concerns. The leading brands must make a sustainable change for consumers to take notice.
Recycling and recovering earth metals could limit the social and environmental effects of destructive mining. Using technology metals from electronic waste will minimise extraction with existing sources. We should dispose of our unwanted technology through reselling, recycling and repurposing. This will reduce pollution, protect communities from mining effects and continue to meet global demand.
Leading mining areas, consuming countries and tech giants must lead this operation. However, the change will not happen without resistance. Suppliers and manufacturers need materials for the lowest cost regardless of environmental impact. By gaining political support, we can introduce sanctions and investment that enforce the seriousness of tech’s sustainability problem.
Understanding the adverse effects of technology is the first step in making habitual changes and leading a sustainable lifestyle. Eco-friendly alternatives may be a stretch now but could become an essential switch. For clean technology to be part of our future, it needs to be sustainable from the start of its lifecycle.