Overconsumption and Tech Waste
As a magazine focused on ethical issues, we’d champion any attempt to make sustainable choices, no matter how small they may seem. We applaud any decision to buy second hand clothing, to make more vegetarian meals or to choose products made from recycled materials. It’s these small choices that contribute to significant change. After all, what is our carbon footprint if not a culmination of small, daily decisions? As of such, we believe that a pivot away from overconsumption and towards mindful shopping deserves to be celebrated. However, there’s one area that seems to get a free pass when it comes to consumer wastefulness. And that’s tech. While shoppers beam about bamboo toothbrushes and reusable hemp cups, you never hear anyone talking about sustainable buying decisions in regards to technology. You never hear outrage towards the unrestrained levels of tech waste.
In fact, huge numbers of people needlessly replace their gadgets each year. With small updates to the hardware and specifications of tech items, consumers are pressured to buy newer versions of their phones, computers and tablets. At Ethical, we ask: what is the cost?
When compared to the dialogue around the fashion industry, there’s a stark lack of discussion around the environmental impact of tech supply chains. Of course, we’d be reluctant to say that buyers shouldn’t be allowed to buy the latest device as they see fit. Policing purchases isn’t going to solve the environmental crisis that we face. However, it is worth acknowledging the damage that the overconsumption of tech items causes. One of the biggest issues with tech waste is the fact that so few of its required materials biodegrade. Many succumb to erosion or incineration, releasing heavy metals, plastics and toxins into the environment.
Globally, we generate around 40 million tonnes of tech waste annually. That roughly equates to binning 800 laptops every second. Of this waste, 85% is sent to landfills, and when burnt, release harmful toxins into the air. Specifically, the lithium-ion batteries used in smartphones can give off dozens of potentially fatal gases when burned. It’s estimated that the EU only recycles around 5% of lithium batteries.
Yet it’s not just in the disposal of tech items where harm is found. The production of technical hardware brings great environmental destruction. Consumers may not know that the main components used in their smartphones – and much of their personal tech – include cobalt, gold, silver, palladium and tin. Some sources estimate that 320 tonnes of gold are used in the production of electronics each year. The ‘rare earth’ metals, crucial to the production of much of our tech, are extremely difficult to process.
The mining of these metals creates huge amounts of unwanted waste material that can devastate landscapes and damage ecosystems. For example, cyanide and mercury are common byproducts of gold mining and can contribute to contaminated water supplies. What’s more is that the vast majority of these minerals are mined in developing countries under poor regulatory frameworks. Resultantly, the demand for these minerals often result in violent human rights violations. For example, an illegal gold mine in Indonesia collapsed, killing 13 people, with 100 more still trapped inside.
As these materials are processed, they are treated with strong acids so that they can be separated from unwanted substances. Processing metals ores typically requires huge amounts of energy so that the required metals can be extracted. When processed into alloys, even greater amounts of energy are required.
Plastics, raw materials and processed ores are then used to manufacture the components that are used in our electronic devices. During the assembly process, these components will require repeated cleaning and treatment through the use of industrial scale toxic solvents. In order to manufacture a desktop computer, it takes roughly 3 times its weight in fossil fuels.
Much of electronic equipment is transported by ocean freighters in shipping containers. Although this represents one of the most efficient means of transport available, the environmental costs do add up. Ships use low-grade fuel oil that contain sulfur and can be highly polluting. Digital devices are also protected from damage during transport and are packaged using damaging materials. Sustainable alternatives may be available, yet in the UK alone, around 40% of plastic is used in packaging. This generates around 2.4 million tonnes of packaging waste per year. These plastics sit in our landfills, producing a miasma of greenhouse gases as they decompose.
The Planned Obsolescence of Products
You hear so many members of the older generation say it: back in their day, things used to last longer. There’s many a gran, a great uncle, an older neighbour who say the same: they’ve had a (insert object here) for 40 years and still it works just as well as it once did. These aren’t just the curmudgeonly musings of the elderly – in fact, there’s truth to be told in this regard.
Most smartphones, computers and tablets have a lifespan of one to three years. As products become outdated, newer ‘must-have’ products take their place in the market. However, it’s not so simple as inferior production giving electronics shorter lifespans. You may be aware of the planned obsolescence of products: where companies are deliberately manufacturing items to malfunction after a certain time, creating the need for the consumer to replace them.
In 2018, Apple and Samsung were fined €10m and €5m respectively for ‘dishonest commercial practices’ as their smartphones were revealed to have been designed to cause ‘serious malfunctions and significantly reduce performance, thus accelerating phones’ substitution’. The intention was simple – they wanted to part consumers from their money, then part them with their goods, so that they’re locked into the cycle of buying more. Big tech companies are designing their products to fail,as a ploy to keep consumers ‘needing’ to buy new ones, all without regard to the environment.
With tech, an eco-conscious consumer is swimming against the tide. It’s unreasonable to expect anyone to minimise their tech usage given the world we live in. This is even more true in light of the post-Covid digitalisation of our work spaces. However, it’s clear that an eco-conscious mentality used when buying fashion and found in other areas of commerce is neglected when it comes to tech.
As tech is essential to our livelihoods and leisure time, there’s the belief that our electrical goods need to be optimal. Newer technologies would only support the smooth running of our lives. However, it’s down to consumer will that fashion has moved towards circular models of production. There’s no reason that the same shouldn’t happen with tech. There’s no reason that we can’t demand longevity in our products, or systems that support the safe reuse and recycling of discarded goods. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t reduce tech waste.