The amount of tablets, smartphones and laptops in the world is increasing. It’s something we know without having to be told the facts – we see more and more of them around us. A Cisco 2012 report attests to the dramatic growth we’re seeing in mobile demand; we’re now living in an age where the number of mobile-connected devices exceeds the number of people on earth. There are approximately 7 billion people on earth, to put that in context. And it’s not just mobiles; by 2016 mobile-connected tablets will generate almost as much traffic as the entire global mobile network did in 2012.
So if the technological industry is booming then it’s pertinent to take a look at the process of manufacturing new devices – are we manufacturing responsibly?
For the first time in manufacturing history technological devices now take more energy to make than they do to use. The manufacturing stage of a laptop accounts for as much as 83% of the total energy used to create and use a laptop over its lifespan.
When manufacturing a laptop computer we’ll emit between 227 to 270 kilograms of carbon dioxide, the same amount it takes to make a fridge, except each member of a household doesn’t own a fridge, and we don’t replace them every 3 years.
All devices we use have microchips in them and it’s the microchips especially which take an amazing amount of energy to make. It takes almost the same amount of energy to make an entire car as it does to make just a handful of them. The average computer has between 18 -36 microchips – you could power a 30 watt laptop non-stop for 1,000 days with the energy used to make the microchips.
When we do decide to think about the environmental impact of moving our lives online, most of the time we are concerned with the electricity used to keep our devices going. The curse of stand-bys, the amount of people who leave their laptop running all the time and the like are seen as the biggest concerns.
And it’s true that the power required to keep all these new devices operating is a concern, just like the waste left over when we discard our old devices. Unlike most other industries which have gone some way to invest in recycling, the world of technology has done very little to attempt to recycle its complex parts – partly because it wouldn’t be easy. We generate between 20-50 million tonnes of e-waste globally each year. The majority of this ends up in landfills or incinerators, meaning that toxic substances like lead, cadmium and mercury contaminate land, water and air.
Of course we should start exploring better recycling processes for electronic devices, but until we figure out a way to reduce the energy consumption of manufacturing them in the first place, the environmental legacy of the technological boom will be significant and worrying.
So the question is: what steps are we taking to solve the problem of manufacturing electronic devices when faced with an industry which is seeing dramatic increases in demand year on year?