Environmental Impacts of Computing

Environmental impacts of computing

In 2021 alone, the 5G network development boosted smartphone shipments in the United States, with over 67 million 5G enabled units and 161 million total units being shipped, according to Statista. This is just the tip of the iceberg, as it does not include shipments of laptops, desktops, tablets, etc.  Increasing dependence on digital electronics and digital technology is having a detrimental impact on our surroundings. The cost of using electronic devices and the ever expanding use of  digital computing, is being paid for by our environment. Let’s explore just how.

Top 6 Environmental Impacts of Computing to Keep In Mind

1. Mining

According to estimates, over $21 billion worth of gold and silver (320 tons and 7,500 tons, respectively) are used in digital electronics annually. In addition to this, steel and aluminum are used for computer cases, and copper is used for wiring. You also have rare earth materials that are routinely used in hard drives, batteries, etc.

Extracting and mining these metals creates unwanted waste material and releases harmful toxins (such as cyanide, mercury, etc.), which is ultimately damaging to the ecosystem.

2. Material production

Once the materials are extracted, they need to be refined and processed. To do this, stronger acids are used that help separate unwanted substances from the raw material and leave behind a colossal waste disposal issue. In addition, processing metal ores requires large amounts of energy to purify the metal. Steel and aluminum used in base computer equipment require additional energy to create alloys for strength and durability.

3. Manufacturing

The raw materials and processed ores are then used to manufacture key components used in digital electronic devices. As the metals are cut into parts, waste is produced at this stage. In terms of repeated cleaning and treatment, electronic parts used in smartphones, for instance, require toxic solvents. For perspective, a semiconductor chip fabricator utilizes between 2 million to 4 million gallons of water a day!

4. Shipping

When it comes to moving electronic equipment, it takes energy to move one part from point A to point B. Most of the electronic equipment is transported via ocean freighters, which make use of low-grade fuel oil that contains the highly-polluting by-product sulfur.

5. Operation

Next comes plugging in the product and turning it on. A typical computer uses 60 to 300 watts when running.  Multiply this by millions of computer units and what you’ve got is huge amounts of power consumption which is often fueled by fossil fuels or nuclear energy.  Granted some power comes from renewable sources such as wind or solar but this is still far too small a proportion. 

6. Disposal

The last leg of the supply chain, too, has an environmental impact. Millions of out-of-service units need to be transported every year. This material can end up in landfills and normal waste streams. These also release toxins and heavy metals which get released into the air as well as pollute the water sources nearby.

The environmental impact of computing and the production of digital electronics is too big to ignore. Organizations need to think about recycling products to the extent possible and use environment-friendly alternatives to minimize the impact. To learn how BSC Solutions Group Ltd. is dealing with our clients’ e-waste, you can contact us here