18 June 2018

The impact of technologies on the environment

Introduction

Technological evolution revolutionized the way that we live our lives. Today, communication and a humongous number of services is as distant as one mouse click or a simple chat message. Technology has evolved so much, and with it, the need for different resources required to support this technological evolution. Our lives were impacted by technological evolution in so many different ways that it is hard to quantify or enumerate some of the most impacted areas.

In this article, it will be discussed the impact of technologies on the environment.

Like in many other areas, the technological evolution has a huge impact on the resources we consume all over the planet.

Electrical energy powers today’s technologies, but in order to generate the increasing demand for energy, by-products harmful to our own health and to the planet are also created.

Electrical Energy production

Energy production has more than doubled in the last twenty years, with a huge impact from the Asian continent:

The impact of technologies on the environment

 

The impact of technologies on the environment

Source: Enerdata

With this increase, and because only recently more efforts were taken towards the introduction renewable energy sources, most of this production came from fossil fuel consumption, generating with it, known secondary effects, such as global warming and the ozone hole and lots of pollution. Only recently, a larger awareness and recognition that these facts are connected, allowed creating the necessary conditions to raise awareness into the negative impact of the usage of these resources in our lives and with it, the necessary political will to start making changes.

Worldwide energy production

There is not reliable information about the number of computers or other electronic devices in the world, not today or past data, but there is information the number of internet connected devices over time:

These numbers can provide a reference for the growth of electronic devices used in the last years, which allows having an estimate about how much energy is required to maintain all these devices up and running.

In the year 2000, there were about 415M internet connected devices, which at this time means computers. In 2016 and accounting for all device types, there are about 3.5MM. This represents a growth of 826% in 16 years. It is expected that these figures increase dramatically over time with the increasing introduction of other internet-connected devices. To mention that it is not clear if these figures also include all the necessary network infrastructure equipment required to keep the “internet” active, such as servers and network equipment.

Despite the fact that most of the internet services used nowadays are “cloud based”, those still require physical computers to make them available. Large companies share IT resources via datacenters that concentrate large arrays of servers, while sharing the same building and cooling infrastructures, making this a more efficient manner to provide and IT services. Nonetheless, datacenters still require electrical power to run.

“An estimate of total U.S. data center electricity use (servers, storage, network equipment, and infrastructure) from 2000-2020. In 2014, data centers in the U.S. consumed an estimated 70 billion kWh, representing about 1.8% of total U.S. electricity consumption. Current study results show data center electricity consumption increased by about 4% from 2010-2014, a large shift from the 24% percent increase estimated from 2005-2010 and the nearly 90% increase estimated from 2000- 2005. Energy use is expected to continue slightly increasing in the near future, increasing 4% from 2014-2020, the same rate as the past five years. Based on current trend estimates, U.S. data centers are projected to consume approximately 73 billion kWh in 2020.

Source: https://eta.lbl.gov

 

This means that with the growth of the number of IT devices that are used, it is also expected that electrical energy demands also increase, as both electrical energy consumption and thermal efficiency did not suffer significant improvements over the last years.

To mention that in a near future, electrical vehicles will become an affordable reality, contributing to the electrical energy demand. Also, technologies being developed in this area related to fast battery charging, consume a huge amount of energy in order to make the charge as fast as possible.

Digital coin mining

As a new trend, digital coin mining became very popular. Unfortunately, due to the complex calculations required to mine it, the electrical power required for these operations is extremely high. As direct by-product of this operation, a tremendous amount of heat is generated which on its turn, requires cooling using air conditioner or other similar devices that also consume electrical power, generating additional heat as a by-product.

According to digiconomist.net, annual estimated electricity consumption for coin mining was around 66 TWh/year which represents around 0,3% of the world energy consumption making it a significant share when compared with the actual value that it holds for our daily needs. Because this is a digital good, traded in the same way as any other commodity, that value lives only from speculation and the value that someone else thinks it is worth. It does not hold any actual value nor brings any benefit for the human being, as it is not an accepted form of currency. This makes digital coin mining a complete waste of valuable resources.

Electronic devices production and its impact

Electronic devices are built using some of the most common resources available in our planet, such as sand and some of the rarest, like gold. In addition, extremely dangerous and harmful chemicals such as lead and mercury are used in the process.

These materials need to be extracted from our planets ground, not always following the most ecological or environment respectful methods, especially on the poorest countries that do not have access to affordable and efficient mining and processing equipment and most importantly the knowledge and awareness for topics related to environmental protection. In these places, extremely dangerous chemicals are used, such as mercury in order to extract some materials. Those end up by being dumped into the ground without any treatment or concern to environment or even the areas where people live.

The impact of technologies on the environment

Copper mine in west-northwest of the town of Green Valley, Arizona

Mir mine in Siberia is another example of how harmful humans can be towards the environment. This mine can be seen from space:

The impact of technologies on the environment

 

This pit is over 500m deep and 1.2km of diameter. This is manmade and not even the largest in the world.

Poorest countries are severely affected by this type of industry. First, because they have some of the largest reserves but mainly because of the cheaper labor costs. These countries will eventually be “forced” to facilitate some flexibility as these business areas represent some of the largest economic sectors. Large electronic companies are also to blame, as nowadays everything is profit based, and all companies compete towards the lowest price and the highest profit margin, regardless. In this article, it was not even mentioned the conditions that workers are obliged in these places. Nothing that a simple internet search cannot fix… (I leave that research up to the reader).

The impact of technologies on the environment

 

Building today’s devices, which have typically a lifespan of around 2 to 3 years, take a huge amount of resources. In order to build a regular computer, it takes around:

• 3 times its weight on fossil fuels
• For every gram of a silicon wafer, 630 grams of fossil fuels are used
• For 2 gram microchips, 1,5 kg of fuels and chemicals are required. Not to mention the necessary 30 kg of clean water
• A PC, takes around 1,5 tons of water to be manufactured
• 22 kg of harmful chemicals. Extremely dangerous and harmful, such as lead

The way that we can reduce this impact is to use our devices to their limits. When they become outdated, they can be repurposed, for example, by being donated to a charity or to convert them for other purposes where lower processing capacity is required (for example, home automation devices).

When their life is over, it is pivotal that devices are disposed on a responsible manner and recycled so that they can be reborn into a new purpose. Never, by all means, can electronic devices be dumped into regular domestic garbage disposals.

Is recycling the solution?

Recycling is the only acceptable solution for our electronic devices. Although, there are costs associated to the process, due to need to separate the different materials used in the manufacturing process. Some countries choose to apply some taxes on the purchase of new equipment that are after aimed to support part of the costs of recycling electronic devices.

Despite of the costs of recycling, it does not mean that it is not a profitable business. Electronics does not include only toxic materials but also rare ones like gold and other precious materials, which can be sold and recycled into other purposes. Not to mention the traditional aluminum and petroleum based materials, which will retain their value and can be recycled multiple times. There are several companies that have specialized in this area.

“Recycling aluminium, for example, can reduce energy consumption by as much as 95%. Savings for other materials are lower but still substantial: about 70% for plastics, 60% for steel, 40% for paper and 30% for glass. Recycling also reduces emissions of pollutants that can cause smog, acid rain and the contamination of waterways.”

Source: Economist

The impact of technologies on the environment

Source: Eurostat

Eurostat keeps indicators of the recycling rate for electronic devices. This rate is calculated as the quantity of new equipment sold vs the ones recycled. As can be seen on the chart above, rate has been growing although, in 2015 it was still approximately 35%.

In the end, everyone is accountable to make sure that every electronic equipment, batteries, chargers, etc., are properly disposed and delivered to recycling centers. It is extremely common to find situations where batteries were disposed of into common garbage disposal. These represent a great danger to our health and cause severe environmental damages.

“For humans, both lead and cadmium can be taken only by ingestion or inhalation. Mercury and other harmful metals can even be absorbed through the skin, although this metal’s use in batteries has declined greatly due to laws and regulations that have been put in place (E.g. US Battery Act, 1996) to reduce its content.

These harmful substances permeate into the soil, groundwater and surface water through landfills and also release toxins into the air when they are burnt in municipal waste combustors. Moreover, cadmium is easily taken up by plant roots and accumulates in fruits, vegetables and grass. The impure water and plants, in turn, are consumed by animals and human beings, who then fall prey to a host of ill effects. Studies indicate that nausea, excessive salivation, abdominal pain, liver and kidney damage, skin irritation, headaches, asthma, nervousness, decreased IQ in children and, sometimes, even cancer, can result from exposure to such metals for a sufficient period of time.

In addition, potassium, if it leaks, can cause severe chemical burns thereby affecting the eyes and skin. Landfills also generate methane gas leading to the ‘greenhouse effect’ and global climatic changes.

Source: Frost.com

What can be done to minimize impact on environment?

We live in a society where the environmental conscience does not exist on a general manner. This is a reality over all the sectors from our society. Most governments do not have the determination to make a significant change, as there is also no motivation from the society to clearly and strongly support such movements.

Also, the way that most people run their lives, were every material goods are disposable, not many people are concerned on disposing those goods on the proper manner using recycling centers, often choosing the easiest way to do so, which is to simply throw stuff away on common garbage disposals. How many times were you offered a plastic straw on a bar for your drink or simply dropped into your glass? How many times did you refused a plastic straw? Well, most of those tiny plastic straws end up on common garbage, or during the process, floating in the ocean (due to many causes). Small actions like refusing a plastic straw can make a significant impact on the environment. This applies for many other situations. Simply think on the things that you throw away, minutes after you got it. Refuse to use these things.

Companies are also interested on making profits and environmental concerns are not at all aligned towards profits. There are costs associated to being respectful towards the environment. Even when there are not costs, it is common to choose the easiest way to do things by dumping residues (byproduct of the production processes) directly into the nature without proper treatment. This usually contaminates the soil or water supplies that we all need to live. It is common to find regions where people’s health is affected by this sort of behaviors. In some cases, and because it is cheaper to do so, companies hire laboratories to “create” results that are favorable to the company. In the 1960’s a company in the U.S. did so. There is a known movie that portraits (and dramatizes) the process (Erin Brockovich). This is a real story.

Companies are also interested on selling new devices instead of making them last longer. It is common to find evidences that a device was built for a certain amount of utilizations and after that, to be thrown away. Typically, the costs to repair an equipment, such as a mobile phone, can be very close to the cost a new one. In some cases, manufacturers install parts that will break on disassembly to deliberately avoid its repair.

In addition to that, companies are profit driven, and designing products with a much shorter lifespan than what can be technically achieved is a common strategy amongst the industry. Many times, and especially on electronic devices, it is common for manufacturers to include a “suicide” functionality which will automatically activate after some time or number of utilizations, even though that there’s nothing wrong with the device.

It is everyone’s responsibility to run his or her lives on a sustainable manner. This can be achieved by reducing the resources used to a minimum, such as packaging, driving, shopping. Some of the things with positive impact on the environment, include using material goods to the maximum of their lifespan, refusing to use plastic based products, saving water and energy. Using public transportation for every day commuting is also a good way to save our planet.

Another obvious way to contribute is to apply the 3R policy: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.

As an example, it is substantially more harmful to the environment to build a new car, then to keep an old car running (even one that emits more pollution). So, think twice on the environment before thinking on purchasing the latest shiny model of your favorite vehicle.

Specific to IT companies, there is also things that can be done. It is possible to imagine that most companies in this area to have a lot of electronic waste. Companies need to make sure that those are properly disposed of into recycling centers. Also, when it comes to energy consumption, it is very common to let computers or screens running during the night for no special reason, even if “standby” is being used. Why not shutting down these devices at night even though that only residual power consumption is used? Intelligent lighting or air conditioner, garbage separation is also in the list. What about plastic cups for your water or coffee? How many do you use per day and why can’t those be made of reusable glass instead?

Renewable energies

Investing in renewable energies it is also an excellent way to contribute towards the change into a greener economy but also to retrieve economic benefits without causing major harm to the environment. It has never cheaper to buy solar panels which can be used to generate electrical power for most of the needs. There are small solar panels that can be used to charge your mobile phone, or large ones that can power entire buildings, not to mention the substantial reduction of energy related expenses.

Multiple companies and governments are investing in this area, not only for the ecological benefits, but also to reduce dependency from neighboring countries for electrical power, contributing to reduce trade balance deficit. It is also interesting to see that there is now some healthy competition about the number of days that a country can “run” without resorting to fossil fuel electrical power generation.

“UK runs without coal power for three days in a row”

Source: The Guardian

There are multiple ways to invest in this area. Someone that cannot afford or does not have the necessary space to acquire solar panels, might be able to acquire positions in investment funds of this area, with the possibility of some monetary earnings in the process. There is a large offer on this area, which is usually available on regular banks. These products often offer a low but regular profit distribution or a valorization of the investment. These investments are cross sector by investing on all available renewable energy sources. Also, it usual for these funds to invest as well in R&D in this area. Interesting fact, is that petroleum based companies are also investing in this area which predicts that even these companies are aware of the mentality switch soon to happen.

It is also possible to make an investment for domestic users, but in this case, it will take time to pay off on the investment. A set of two solar panels, will take ten to fifteen years to pay off. It is preferable and more efficient to make large-scale investments.

Companies which are a reference

There are some companies that implemented internal policies and assume commitments towards a “green economy”. International retailer (ALDI Supermarkets) enforces strong policies (hope they don’t mind I use their brand for good examples). For example, newer stores are installed with arrays of solar panels that not only provide more than enough energy for the store, but also have initiatives to allow electrical vehicle charging for free, using this energy:

As another example, they have also created other initiates in order to eliminate the usage of certain harmful chemicals for the products that they sell:

Conclusion

I would like to leave one additional reference, for a video that shows what is the final destination of a large part of the technologic devices that we simply throw away. In some of the cases, even the devices that were properly disposed of:

It is stated in this movie that waste also comes from developed countries that it is known that have electronic waste management capabilities.

Apologies if the videos are shocking, but this is the reality and our contribution to the society.

It is crucial that a broader alignment of people’s mentalities is promoted, so that this major issue can be solved and corrected for generations to come.

If human beings continue to use earth’s resources as if they were infinite, soon enough no resources will be available. Also, everyone needs to be aware of the ecological footprint that we all leave behind. During this article, it was not even mentioned in detail the proven climate changes that are affecting us all due to the way we run our lives and utilize the available resources, not even other environmental protection subjects. There is a lot to be done, but by far the biggest challenge is the mindset change.

My grandfather used to tell me when I was young, that in nature, nothing is gained and nothing is lost. Everything transforms. We just need to be careful in what it transforms into!

It is possible to maintain our lifestyle, with access to futuristic electronic devices and with respect to environment. We just need to create the will to change and think about the consequences of our acts towards the environment. Small actions do make a big difference.

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