Are Electronics Bad for the Environment?

By Lena Milton.

Most of us use electronics every day without even thinking about it. You wake up, check your phone, brush your teeth with your electric toothbrush, boil water with your electric water heater, make toast in the toaster, and sit down at the computer to get some work done. That’s 5 electronic products, all within the first few hours (or less) of your day.

The question of the environmental impacts of electronics may have never even crossed your mind. Unfortunately, each stage of an electronic’s life cycle, from raw materials to disposal, negatively affects the environment, and even human health.

This article discusses the environmental impacts of electronics at each stage of a product’s life cycle, and also gives you some tips on how to reduce those impacts yourself.

Raw Materials

Many different minerals and metals are used to perform different functions in electronics. Mining raw materials like silver or gold to make electronic components has one of the largest environmental impacts in electronic production. Every year,7500 tons of silver is used globally to make electronics. And this number is rising; in 2001, 197 tons of the world’s gold supply was used to make electronics, and in 2011, that number had increased to 320 tons, or 7.7% of the gold supply.

Metals and minerals used to create electronics are a finite resource. As electronic production increases, these resources may become depleted.

Not only is mining resource and energy intensive, but it also creates large amounts of waste, including radioactive waste. This is often released into the environment and harms communities located near mines. Cyanide may also be released into water sources, which kills aquatic life and harms human health.

After mining, the materials must be treated and processed. It takes large amounts of energy to process raw materials into usable materials. Metals like steel that are commonly used in electronics require purification and energy to create alloys (combinations of metals).

Lastly, plastics, often used in electronics, are also energy intensive and made from crude oil, a fossil fuel.

Manufacturing

Manufacturing of electronics creates waste, uses energy and water, and emits carbon.

For example, a typical semiconductor producing facility uses 240,000 kilowatt hours of electricity and 2 million gallons of water every day. This water must be treated to be reused, which is an additional use of energy. Particularly in areas where water is already scarce, electronics manufacturing poses an extreme stress on the water supply.

The electronics manufacturing sector is a large emitter of greenhouse gases. For example, according to the EPA, electronics manufacturing emitted 6.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2017. Semiconductor manufacturing, which is required for many electronics, makes up most of these emissions. As of January 2022, most semiconductors are made in China, which raises particular environmental concern due to the relative lack of environmental regulation for Chinese industry. Even electronics companies that undergo quality control inspections in China may not truly account for the impacts of semiconductor production on climate change and the environment as a whole.

E-waste

When electronics are no longer used, they become “e-waste” or electronic waste. E-waste has many harmful effects on the environment.

Many toxic substances are used in electronics manufacturing, such as benzene, lead, and arsenic. When electronics are put in landfill, these materials leach out over time into soil, air, and water. Not only does this cause detrimental effects on the environment and wildlife, but it can also harm human health.

Disposing of electronics in landfill also makes it impossible to re-use finite raw materials. As discussed above, 7500 tons of silver is used each year, but only 15% of precious metals are recovered for reuse. 

Recycling e-waste is the best way to decrease raw material mining and avoid leaching of harmful materials into the environment.

What Should I Do?

Electronics are undoubtedly here to stay, and are also undoubtedly an environmental problem. While future electronic production processes may become more environmentally friendly, we can’t wait around for that to happen. Here are a few things you can do today to reduce the environmental impact of your electronics:

Buy more eco-friendly products

Some electronics manufacturers are already taking steps to make their products more sustainable. For example, Lenovo and Asus have started making laptops with more eco-friendly materials, such as organic light emitting diodes. Look out for TCO Certified laptops, which are certified for achieving specific sustainability goals such as reduced use of hazardous substances and use of responsibly sourced minerals. You can also search for electronics manufacturers that have undergone environmental compliance audits to make sure their processes comply with all environmental regulations.

Buy used electronics

Buying used or refurbished electronics reduces the energy consumption and waste created by manufacturing brand new electronics. It also helps stop perfectly good electronics from getting discarded, which wastes finite raw materials. As a great side benefit, you’ll save money by buying used products.

Unplug your electronics

Once fully charged, leaving your electronics plugged in consumes large amounts of wasted energy. For example, a charged laptop that is left plugged in consumes 29.48 watts of energy, which is over 60% of the energy used while actually charging. Unplugging your computer or phone once it’s charged is not only more energy-efficient, but it also helps preserve your battery longer.

Recycle your electronics

When you’re done using your electronics, make sure to recycle them properly. This helps keep toxic materials out of landfills as electronics degrade. Use the e-Stewards search tool to find an e-waste recycling option near you.

Encourage your state to pass RoHS legislation

Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) legislation limits the amount of toxic materials that can be used to produce electronics. While the EU’s RoHS legislation is quite strong and limits the use of ten different substances, the U.S. does not have a federal law. While some states like California do have RoHS legislation, it is very weak. 

Write to your state legislature to encourage them to pass RoHS legislation to keep unsafe chemicals out of electronics, and therefore out of landfills and the environment.

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