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Five environmental impacts of electronic communications

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Five environmental impacts of electronic communications

April 18, 2011 - 23:25
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NEW BRUNSWICK, CANADA, April 19, 2011 (RISI) -Below is a brief look at some key environmental impacts over the life cycle of computers and their various accessories, with the objective of introducing some of the environmental challenges that the ICT industry faces, especially given the perception that replacing paper and print with digital communication is "better" for the environment (1). The following information is based on a brochure produced by NewPage (2) supplemented by other references.

Overview of the life cycle

1. Raw material extraction

Computers contain several non-renewable natural resources extracted from the earth and processed, often requiring a significant amount of resources and energy. These include sand (to make glass for screens), oil (used for plastics), and several metals used in wiring and circuitry. The type of metals depend on the age of the components and can include lead, gold, iron, aluminum, zinc, nickel, tin, magnesium, silver, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, chromium and others. Some of these are becoming increasingly scarce and sometimes their supply chain leads to operations with questionable social and environmental issues. For example, coltan is a rare metal that contains tantalum, a key component of electronic circuitry in computers, smart phones and e-readers. The global tantalum capacitor market is worth about $2 billion annually. Based on an article by the Globe and Mail (3), a significant amount of coltan is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo and helping finance a civil war.

2. Material manufacturing

After extraction and processing, raw materials are then used in the production of other raw materials for the computer's components. A publication by the United Nations University (4) has estimated that the manufacture of a computer and monitor weighing 53 lbs (24 kg) requires 10 times the amount of fossil fuels (over 530 lbs or 240 kg), 50 lbs (23 kg) of chemicals and 3300 lbs (1497 kg) of water. For an automobile or refrigerator, for example, the weight of fossil fuels used for production is roughly equal to their weights.

3. Computer and accessory manufacturing, packaging and transport

Compnent materials are then made into parts such as hard drives, screens and plastic housings. More often than not, these parts are shipped elsewhere for assembly into the finished computer. The computer or accessories are then packaged, usually in plastics and cardboard for protection during transit.

Packaged computers and their accessories are shipped all over the world, many travelling large distances from where they were manufactured. This influences the carbon footprint of the product, with truck transport contributing the most and rail or ship the least (per kg or lb of product).

4. Use

The volume of data being generated, transmitted and stored as a result of Internet use has exploded, and Web server farms or data centers have grown with it. Each facility draws a significant amount of power to run and cool the thousands of computers it takes to keep up with 24-hour-a-day fast-growing demand. It is estimated that the production and running of the ICT sector equates to 2% of global GHG emissions, similar to the airline industry, and this is expected to double by 2020 (5). As an example, every year 62 trillion spam emails are sent, contributing greenhouse gases equivalent to two billion gallons of gasoline, or enough to drive a car around the globe 1.6 million times (6).

Picture: iStockphoto

5. End of Life

Based on the U.S. EPA, the U.S. is discarding older electronic products faster than ever due to the short life-span of electronics (7,8). In 2005, 26 to 37 million computers became obsolete. In 2007 about 1.5 to 1.8 million tons were primarily disposed in landfills and only 18% of e-waste was recycled. A total of 61% were exported for remanufacture or refurbishment.

Some of the constituents, such as lead, nickel, cadmium, and mercury, could pose risks to human health or the environment if mismanaged at their end-of-life. The U.S. EPA strongly supports keeping used electronics out of landfills to recover materials and reduce the environmental impacts and energy demands from mining and manufacturing (8). For example:

  • Recycling 1 million laptops saves the same amount of electricity used by 3,657 US homes in a year.
  • One metric ton of circuit boards can contain 40 to 800 times the concentrations of gold ore mined in the US and 30-40 times the concentration of copper ore mined in the US.

One concern is that large amounts of e-waste are sent to China, India and Kenya where workers may be unprotected and exposed to hazardous materials like mercury and lead in the process of burning electronics in search of copper and aluminum to resell. Greenpeace USA, the Basel Action Network (BAN) and The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition currently lead campaigns focused on e-waste issues (9,10,11).


Buying from a company that is making efforts to be sustainable is a good start. For example, the electronic tools used to produce this blog were made by Acer, NEC and Hewlett-Packard. All three companies have thorough sustainability programs outlined on their web sites, showing engagement with the key environmental and social issues (12,13,14). Anyone interested in "green" electronics should also be aware of the EPEAT Registry for Green Electronics (15). In addition, consider turning off your computer at night and weekends, donating old computers and recycling your electronics.

All manufacturing sectors have challenging environmental issues and are working to improve the situation. Paper, print and e-media will co-exist for many years to come. They all have either negative or positive environmental, social and economic impacts that can be continuously improved. Given the fact that forest products have such unique environmental features (renewable, recyclable, carbon capture and storage, supporting sustainable forest management), perhaps there are unique partnership opportunities with the ICT sector, especially in the area of sustainable product design. Server farms could easily be powered by renewable biomass from sustainably managed forests. With emerging research on nano-cellulose, wood-plastic composites, and bio-diesel, perhaps the forest products from my woodlot will also one day be valued, not only for pulp and timber, but for biochemicals extracted from woody biomass to make renewable plastic and bio-diesel fuel used in computer manufacturing.