Technology is so heavily engrained into our day-to-day lives that it’d be hard to imagine life without smartphones, smart watches, tablets, and computers.
But there is a hidden cost to the devices we use daily — our discarded tech products constitute only 2% of the total waste generated in the United States, yet account for approximately 70% of the toxic waste produced.
And the disposed remnants of technology products, components, and materials — collectively known as electronic waste — keep on piling up.
According to ITU, the United Nations’s Agency for Information and Communication Technologies, e-waste amounts to 53 million metric tons per year.
This has grown by 9.2 Mt since 2014 and is projected to grow to 74.7 Mt by 2030 – almost doubling in only 16 years.
The UN also estimates that technology companies produce between 2% and 3% of the world’s carbon emissions, with a report by ElectronicsHub finding Samsung has the biggest carbon footprint of all tech firms, producing 20.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.
While the world’s tech giants spend billions on net-zero initiatives, that megaton mountain of discarded tech keeps piling up, and it’s something we’re all complicit in.
To reduce carbon footprint and help tackle the climate crisis, technology companies must radically transform how they design, manufacture, sell, and dispose of products.
But how can they do this? And is there anything consumers can do to help enable a greener tech industry?
Technology: Good for Us, Bad for the Nature
A tech product’s entire lifecycle can harm the environment from design and manufacturing to usage and disposal.
Alexis Normand, co-founder and CEO of Greenly, explains that the materials, manufacturing processes, and machinery used for creating tech products can make a big difference in their environmental impact.
For example, using large amounts of energy or relying on fossil fuels in the product manufacturing process would be deemed harmful to the natural world. Tech giants like Apple are attempting to reduce their carbon footprint using renewable energy and recycled materials for product manufacturing.
And it can quickly turn into toxic waste, harming the health of humans and animals. Sarah McConomy, chief operating officer of Sell Cell, gives one example:
“For instance, the lead solder used in assembling the printed circuit board may not harm your health while using the phone, but it can contaminate the soil if disposed of in a landfill. Moreover, cell phones harbor toxic substances like arsenic, cadmium, and brominated flame retardants.”
E-waste often enters landfills and oceans, polluting the environment and damaging habitats. Heather Delaney, founder and managing director of Gallium Ventures, says:
“This results in plastics entering our water systems, the destruction of nature, and animals coming to harm.”
The Benefits of Green Tech
Creating eco-friendly products and services can benefit technology firms, with the most significant advantage being a smaller carbon footprint.
Normand says businesses can reduce the environmental impact of their products and services by “using sustainable materials, minimizing energy consumption, and adopting eco-friendly manufacturing processes.”
The increased energy efficiency of eco-friendly manufacturing practices also has advantages for manufacturers. Normand says it can help firms “lower energy consumption during both manufacturing and use,” resulting in reduced costs and less dependence on fossil fuels.
Normand says tech companies can contribute to “the conservation of natural resources and reducing the environmental impact associated with resource extraction by recycling and responsibly sourcing materials.”
Developing eco-friendly products and services will also help tech firms reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to global action against climate change. Normand adds: “This aligns with global efforts to reduce overall emissions and combat environmental challenges.”
There is a growing market demand for eco-friendly technologies, with many innovations emerging. Normand says:
“The demand for eco-friendly products encourages innovation in technology, leading to the development of more sustainable practices and solutions. This shift reflects changing consumer preferences and supports a more sustainable market.”
McConomy says sustainable technologies and services “contribute to waste reduction through responsible recycling initiatives.” Another benefit is that they “enhance product design and performance by minimizing the number of parts and packaging,” she adds.
Developing Sustainable Technologies
While sustainable technologies are great for the environment and offer many other benefits, how can firms develop them?
A big part of this process is the implementation of eco-friendly practices across the entire company and making sustainability an integral part of its mission, according to McConomy.
When developing products, she recommends that firms choose recycled materials rather than new ones. It is also a good idea to “use the least amount of parts and materials possible,” she adds.
Firms can “minimize transportation costs and emissions by choosing locally sourced materials.” By utilizing every inch of space across factories and transport, McConomy says tech manufacturers can “maximize efficiency.”
Oli Cook, co-founder and CEO of Ekko, advises tech companies to think carefully about the environmental impact of products and all components as part of the design process.
He explained that “small changes will have a huge impact when this product is produced and distributed at scale.”
The Durability of Products Can Reduce E-Waste
Tech firms should also consider the end consumer and their needs when developing sustainable products. Cook explains:
“How the tech and products we build can help consumers make more sustainable choices, bring awareness of the impact, and encourage positive, sustainable choices is an exciting prospect with potentially seismic impact.”
According to Normand, analyzing the carbon footprint of the current product development process will enable firms to find ways to improve it as part of a comprehensive roadmap.
He explains: “As part of this, life cycle analysis can assist businesses in creating strategies to craft durable products that, once past their prime, can be efficiently repaired, recycled, or repurposed.”
Delaney says there are various ways tech firms can develop eco-friendly products and services, such as shipping products using low-emission transport, using less plastic in product packaging, and offering schemes that allow customers to recycle or dispose of old devices responsibly.
Consumers Can Also Help
Consumers are also essential in reducing e-waste and creating a more sustainable technology ecosystem.
One of the most significant things consumers can do is purchase eco-friendly devices rather than “cheaply-made, polluting products,” according to Normand.
“Many products will have labels such as the Energy Star mark to certify that products meet emissions and energy efficiency standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy – so consumers should actively seek these out.”
Although upgrading your device to the latest model may sound tempting, McConomy says consumers should ask themselves whether this is necessary. She explains: “The average upgrade cycle for phones is two years, so think about keeping hold of a device longer.”
If you want a new device, McConomy says purchasing a refurbished or second-hand product is a sustainable option. When looking to discard old appliances, she advises selling or recycling them, and throwing old devices in the bin results in e-waste.
“Make money from old tech by finding businesses that will pay you for old tech and only recycle through accredited buyback companies. Only use established and accredited recycling or buyback companies to ensure that it does not end up in landfill,” she adds.
Undoubtedly, our lives would look very different without the impressive innovations created by the technology industry. But given that climate change threatens the future of human civilization, we can’t afford to ignore the fact that current technologies negatively impact the environment.
While it’s reassuring to see the world’s biggest tech companies set ambitious net-zero targets, achieving them isn’t possible overnight. It requires concrete action across the entire technology lifecycle, aided by increased consumer awareness and support.