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The Life-Cycle impact of Digital Hardware.

product lifecycle cradle to graveThe Manufacture of Digital Equipment consumes a considerable amount of raw materials and energy. The short life span of 2-3 years associated with much of this Equipment means that the initial production phase produces a high environmental impact that is not off-set through life-expectancy. Coupled with dwindling natural resources and high volumes of heavy metals and hazardous chemicals incorporated into their design, their potential impact on our environment is significant.


Energy Consumption During Manufacturing:

  • An average computer system, with base unit, keyboard, mouse and screen requires 10 times it’s weight in fossil fuels to manufacture (3)
  • As the size and weight of equipment diminishes with technological advancements, their environmental impact increases.
  • The Carbon footprint of a computer is about the same as that of a refrigerator. The short life span of a PC exacerbates the situation because it fails to off-set the carbon used during the manufacturing process.

 

One way to off-set the huge Carbon footprint of a PC is to re-use it, prolonging it’s life span and effectively spreading the carbon consumed during the manufacturing process over a longer period of time.

Environmental Impact of manufacturing:

Electronic devices require a lot of materials in their manufacture. Many of these materials are used to simply assist in the manufacturing process and not in the production of the finished product:

 

For every gram of a Silicon Wafer, 630 grams of fossil fuels are used, whereas for every gram of an automobile, only 2 grams of fossil fuels are used.

The 2-gram microchips used in laptop memory require 1.5 kilos of fuel and chemicals to produce. In addition to that it takes about 30 kilos of water.

 

chemical elements of a smart phone

  • An average PC needs 1.5 tonnes of water to manufacture it.
  • 22 kilograms of chemicals are used during the manufacturing process.

 

Many manufacturers have set eco targets with a view to reducing energy consumption, chemical usage and improving recycle-ability. In doing so, they’ve cut out many traditional chemicals used in their products such as Brominated Flame Retardants and Lead in Solder.

Off-setting the Carbon Footprint:

Energy consumed during manufacture and lifespan of typical computer systemThe energy consumption of a typical Computer varies depending on how it is used. Typically, computers used at home will have a longer life span, but the initial production impact will not be off-set as quickly as it would be in a computer used in an Educational or work environment, where the system is used for extended periods of time. This was reflected in the various studies carried out during 2000-2003. (1)

 

 

Extending the life cycle of an I. T. product significantly reduces its Per Annum Carbon Footprint, as a result improving the efficiency of the manufacturing process.

Post Consumption:

tepical energy and materials used in laptopThe argument for recycling of Electronic hardware is one of dwindling natural resources and the need to reduce our reliance upon them. However, it’s clear that the manufacturing of Electronic equipment is a resource intensive task and simply recovering obsolete hardware does not off-set the entire environmental cost of the manufacturing process.

 

For example, a study conducted by AMD found that the energy of it’s processors consumed during use was 83% of overall lifetime energy. One reason for this was increased efficiency in the manufacturing process. However, the report went on to say that as processors become more complex this trend may reverse.(2)

 

Moreover, the energy and resources used in the manufacture of the silicon wafer are typically lost during the recycling process. The process does not usually incorporate the recovery of silicon (the main constituent of a CPU) and is instead aimed at the recovery of gold, used for improved conductivity of the connectors.

 

The same applies to the majority electronic wastes, with many materials being lost as a result of the recycling process itself. Printed circuit boards, hard plastics and many composite materials are not re-used. In every case, the energy and resources used in their initial production is lost.

Why recycle them then?

Of the resources that are recovered during the recycling process, many are high value materials. Copper, Lead, Tin and Gold represent the highest value materials available for direct recovery from scrap electronics. They offer the highest return on investment.

 

However, it is not necessarily the recovery of materials that drives the recycling process itself. After all, as technology advances, hardware is getting smaller.

 

The need to reduce the environmental impact of waste electronics remains the main driving force behind recycling them. Whilst manufacturers seek to reduce the environmental impact of their activities and products, many new technologies rely on the use of dangerous materials. For example, laptops, tablets and mobile phones all rely on Lithium Ion batteries to function. However, in the 1990s, the same products were not only heavier and larger but needed Nickel Cadmium Batteries to function. Both technologies are equally toxic, but the prevalence of mobile technologies has seen an explosion in the use of Lithium in recent years.

 

More on this subject: What Electronic Wastes are Hazardous?- Many digital products contain Hazardous materials. Here’s a breakdown of the chemicals they contain.

However:

Numerous developing nations are being flooded with the UK’s electronic waste, much of which was supposed to be recycled. The result is a devastating impact upon local environments and populations. Driven out of a need to reduce overheads and maintain a profit, much of the waste is being sold for export in the guise of working equipment.

 

Learn More:

 

The international trade in Toxic electronic Waste- Ethical Disposal?- The trade in electronic waste is an international issue that has resulted in Toxic waste dumps developing in third world countries.

Sources:

 

1) Williams, E., 2003. Environmental Impacts in the Production of Personal Computers. In: R. Kuehr and E. Williams, eds, Computers and the Environment. Understanding and Managing the Impacts. Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers and United Nations University. See also Williams, E., 2004. Energy Intensity of Computer Manufacturing: Hybrid Assessment Combining Process and Economic Input-Output Methods. Environ. Sci. Technol., 2004, 38, 6166- 6174. 

2) Life Cycle Energy and Environmental Impacts of Computing Equipment
- A June 2011 Update
to a 2009 SusteIT Report, Lisa Hopkinson and Peter James
Higher Education Environmental Performance Improvement Project, University of Bradford
www.goodcampus.org

3) The newsletter of United Nations University and its international network of research and training centres/programmes
Issue31: May-June 2004

Study tallies environmental cost of computer boom

 

 

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