How Does Green Tech Become More Environmentally Friendly?
Examining Recycling and the Carbon Footprint of the Tech Industry
Consumers and companies are increasingly demanding products and services that are environmentally friendly and sustainable, and electronic equipment is no exception. Tech companies are responding, but programs to reduce the amount of materials produced or provide e-recycling are still lacking. Products have a limited lifespan and are not easy to reuse or repurpose. Consumers are not in the habit of recycling a wide range of electronics in the U.S.
So how does tech become more environmentally friendly?
Consumer Demand Driving Green Tech
Tech producers are smart to pay attention to their environmental and sustainability goals. According to a Nielsen report, nearly three quarters of all global consumers would change a purchasing choice to reduce their environmental impact on the planet. While over half of consumers around the world are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products, 73% of global millennials will shell out extra cash for products and services that come from companies committed to positive environmental and social impacts. Most millennials have stopped buying from companies that engage in unsustainable or unethical practices.
Companies are being more conscientious in their buying decisions too, demanding more environmentally friendly produced electronics and tech equipment.
Tech and the Impact on the Environment
The growing global trend toward environmental responsibility in tech is due to rising awareness of significant negative environmental effects in the production, use, and disposal of electronics. These include:
E-waste: Electronic waste, or e-waste, is one of the most significant environmental impacts of electronics. Discarded electronic devices can end up in landfills or incinerators, potentially releasing toxic chemicals into the environment. According to the Global E-waste Monitor, the world generated 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste in 2019, of which only 17.4% was officially collected and recycled.
Resource depletion: The production of electronic devices requires the extraction of rare and precious metals, such as gold, silver, and copper, as well as other resources such as oil and natural gas. The extraction of these resources can have negative environmental impacts, including habitat destruction, water pollution, and soil contamination.
Energy consumption and carbon emissions: The production and use of electronics require significant amounts of energy, which can contribute to carbon emissions and climate change. The International Energy Agency expects global electricity consumption from electronic devices to increase by 80% between 2020 and 2030.
Water pollution: The production of electronics can also result in the discharge of toxic chemicals into the air and waterways, which can harm aquatic ecosystems and human health. For example, the manufacturing of semiconductors and other electronics requires the use of chemicals, such as global warming potential perfluorinated gas compounds, which are persistent and bioaccumulative. The EPA estimates that between 10% and 80% perfluorinated compounds are released during semiconductor manufacturing. These chemicals accumulate in nature faster than it eliminates (bioaccumulation), which can affect plants, animals and humans up the food chain.
Land use: The production of electronic devices requires land use for manufacturing facilities, mining operations, and waste disposal sites, which can result in habitat destruction and fragmentation.
Positive Steps by Big Tech
Many tech companies are incorporating recycled materials into their products to reduce their environmental impact. Here are some examples of companies taking steps to minimize waste and promote sustainability:
- Apple has been using recycled materials in its products for several years. In 2020, the company announced that it had developed a new process to recycle rare earth elements from old iPhones, which it said could significantly reduce the need to mine new materials. Apple has also committed to using 100% recycled or renewable materials in its products and packaging by 2030.
- Dell has been using recycled plastics in its products since 2008, and recently started using recycled carbon fiber in some of its laptops. The company is working to extend the life of its products and materials through repair, reuse and recycling, taking back one product for each one sold.
- In 2020, HP announced it would use ocean-bound plastics in its products. HP has also committed to using 30% recycled plastic in its products by 2025.
- Samsung has been using recycled materials in its products for several years, and in 2020, the company announced that it would use recycled plastic in its Galaxy S20 FE smartphone. Samsung has committed to using sustainable materials in all of its products by 2025.
- Following their tradition of using recycled materials in its products, Google designed the Pixel 5 smartphone with recycled aluminum, and incorporated recycled materials into all Made by Google products, two years ahead of its 2022 self-imposed deadline.
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Are Self-Directed Efforts Enough?
The massive negative impact of technology on the environment has become increasingly clear in recent years, with issues such as e-waste and carbon emissions becoming major concerns. Tech companies recognize the need to take action, but are at varying stages in reducing their environmental impact. Governments around the world are stepping in to implement regulations and policies to promote sustainability and reduce carbon emissions, including laws targeting tech and related industries.
Here are a few US examples:
- Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR): This is a term you are likely to hear more and more. Essentially, EPR places environmental responsibility on the producer for the products they provide, meaning they will need to have a role in the post-consumer stage of a product’s life, such as providing a recycling program. Many states are enacting or considering such legislation for tech and other industries. Also, EPR is not limited to the product, but also includes the packaging it comes in.
- Clean Energy Standard: In 2021, the US Senate passed a $3.5 trillion budget resolution that includes a Clean Energy Standard (CES). The CES would require electric utilities to produce 80% clean energy by 2030 and 100% by 2035. Tech company advancement in areas like artificial intelligence, digitalization, information systems and data centers could help usher in smarter, more flexible energy systems needed to achieve net-zero emissions for all industries.
- EPA Regulations: The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates greenhouse gas emissions from industrial facilities. The EPA updated regulations to include more business types, including data centers, in their greenhouse gas emissions requirements.
- Carbon Neutrality Commitments: Several tech companies have made commitments to achieve carbon neutrality or net-zero emissions. These commitments are not directly regulated by the US government, but they reflect the pressure that tech companies face to reduce their carbon emissions.
E-waste is not the Only Option
IBM compiled a list of ways other than recycling that tech companies can take product responsibility. These include:
- Developing products that can be upgraded to extend product life;
- Develop products that can be reused or disposed of safely at the end of product life;
- Develop and manufacture products that use recycled materials where technically and economically justifiable;
- Develop products that provide improvements in energy efficiency;
- Develop products that minimize resource use and environmental impacts through the use of environmentally preferred materials and finishes;
- Re-use factory waste for new products; and
- Use less packaging, or recyclable packaging.
Overall, there is willingness by big tech companies to be more environmentally responsible regarding the products they produce. At the same time, the US and state governments are pressuring and regulating tech companies to reduce their carbon footprint and support a circular economy by reducing products or materials, recycling and reusing materials in operations.
However, we individuals are the driver for change regarding waste and recycling of our electronics. The US generates far more waste per capita than any other country in the world. We each need to think about how many phones, computers and other electronic gear we bring into our lives and the environmental impact of these devices. Check the company’s EPR commitment. Plan for what to do with equipment after you are done with it. Reduce, reuse, recycle, and be a part of the overall success for a more sustainable future.
News about the climate crisis is now prevalent in most media sources. We will continue to bring you news about how green technology can help. See our initial article, Green Tech: A Brief Primer.