Since the beginning of humanity, technology has been the key aspect that drives us forward, giving us new abilities, information, and access to the world around us. However, as our modern technology rapidly advances, the gadgets that connect us may be doing more harm than good.
With mineral mining, mass energy consumption, and a growing amount of electronic waste, our technology has an increasingly devastating impact on our environment.
Most of us know that our smartphones are filled with metals like aluminum, silver, gold, and silicon to run the complex processes that we rely on. But fewer people know where those metals come from.
Extracting the precious metals and minerals that make up our electronics is an intensive and large-scale process that results in major pollution, as well as economic stress on the countries it takes place in.
Cobalt is one of the most common elements found in electronics, due to its efficiency in storing energy. More than 70% of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Congo. Due to the intensive mining that cuts into the earth and the minimal environmental regulations of Central Africa, this mining results in major environmental pollution.
Mining requires extractors and separators that leak raw elements like uranium and thorium into waters and soils. These leaked chemicals are often highly radioactive, and can cause severe health defects in workers and nearby communities affected by contaminated waters.
Unfortunately, this scenario is not limited to Central Africa. A significant portion of copper and lithium come from South America, where mining activities result in the clear-cutting of rainforests and heavy metals leaking into waterways and soils.
When we think of the energy consumption our household tech causes, we typically think of the energy required to charge it. However, the majority of energy consumption from our gadgets comes from the massive servers and data banks that allow us to use their features.
Recent studies have shown that the servers and data banks that connect our devices and store our data are consuming more and more energy. Predictions forecast that our technology’s energy consumption will wildly accelerate in the next ten years, with household electronics consuming up to 21% of global electricity by 2030.
The issue isn’t with the energy consumption itself, but where that energy is coming from. The majority of these data servers are powered by non-renewable fuel sources, resulting in extremely high greenhouse gas emissions that directly impact climate change. Data centers alone account for 1.8% of the United States’ entire electricity usage, which may not seem like a lot, but produces an annual average of 35 million tons of carbon dioxide.
Even after our gadgets are no longer in use, their environmental footprints extend beyond the recycling bin.
Only about 2% of e-waste (electronic waste) makes up America’s landfills, but it accounts for 70% of toxic waste. When our electronics go into landfills, the precious metals and minerals that make up their electronic parts can easily leak into our soils and waters, resulting in chemical contamination.
In many places around the world, there are numerous safety precautions and laws that keep chemical contaminants contained. For example, in the EU, manufacturers of electronic products must follow strict regulations under the “Restriction of Hazardous Substances” law, or face severe penalties of non-compliance. However, a significant portion of our e-waste ends up in countries that lack critical waste regulations. About one-fifth of our recycled e-waste ends up in China, Thailand, Pakistan, and Kenya. This leads to our waste being compacted or burned, and the chemicals inside leaching into the air, soils, and waters for hazardous contamination that affects not only the environment, but causes severe impacts on human health.
Even when we properly recycle our electronics, they can still end up polluting the planet. So instead of leaving your broken and worn-out tech at the nearest recycling plant, donate your e-waste to programs that reuse, refurbish, and reassemble old electronics to give them a second life.
One of the biggest steps we can take to minimize our e-waste is buying responsibly. Avoid abandoning your old smartphone for the latest and greatest model, and hold on to your electronics as long as you can. When it’s time to buy replacements, consider shopping for secondhand electronics, or look for brands that use electronic testing like CB certification. This international certification standard ensures that electronics are produced safely and sustainably, and are built to last, which helps avoid having to mine more raw materials.
Whenever possible, invest in high-quality, sustainable electronics that won’t need to be replaced for several years. Limiting our consumption is one of the best actions we can take to mitigate our contribution to electronic pollution, so limit your electronic purchases and shop smart.
Lena Milton is a freelance writer covering sustainability, health and environmental science. She writes to help consumers understand the environmental and ethical challenges in everyday life so we can find viable solutions for both.