Environmental Impacts of Electronics

Environmental Impacts of Electronics

The term “electronics” does not correspond to the scientific and engineering discipline alone. It also represents the activities and products of the greater electronics sector and the more specific consumer electronics industry. Nevertheless, despite the advancements in electronics as a field that have brought forth practical technologies and end-use applications, the production and consumption of electronic products have also resulted in negative environmental consequences. The actual environmental impacts of electronics are also a consequence of the overconsumption in the linear economic model and the overall environmental problems emerging from the globalization of commerce and trade.

Understanding the Environmental Impacts of Electronics: How the Electronics Sector and the Production and Consumption of Electronic Products Harm the Environment

Several research institutions have valued the global electronics sector at more than USD 1.00 trillion. Numerous forecasts have also asserted that it would continue to grow further in the next two decades. The main drivers for growth include growing demands in emerging markets or developing countries, continuous technological push from relevant companies, an increase in investments, further advances in relevant technologies, and the emergence of newer electronic products or practical applications of relevant technologies.

However, despite its economic importance and even its sociocultural contributions, and despite accounting for one of the largest drivers of growth in various economies, the sector has also been criticized for creating problems affecting the environment. The environmental impacts of the electronics sector or the negative environmental externalities arising from the production and consumption of electronic products have been investigated and documented. The following are the principal environmental impacts of electronics:

1. High Consumption of Energy

The size of the electronics sector means that it is one of the largest industrial consumers of energy in the world. A report from Greenpeace East Asia mentioned that semiconductor manufacturing is forecasted to consume 237 terawatt hours of electricity by 2030. This is roughly the equivalent of the entire electricity consumption of Australia for 2021. Fossil fuel accounted for more than 90 percent of energy input according to a 2023 research by Qi Wang et al.

It is important to note that the entire semiconductor industry is the central driving force behind the electronics sector. Semiconductor chips are a critical component of the supply chain for electronics. These chips are used in a range of electronic products such as televisions and other home appliances, personal computers, smartphones, automobiles, and hardware for network infrastructure, data centers, and artificial intelligence.

The end-use consumption of energy should also be taken into account when exploring the energy footprint of the energy sector. The Consumer Technology Association revealed that powering consumer electronic products cost about USD 191.00 per household in the United States in 2020. The global demand for consumer electronics would increase further the end-use consumption of energy and the entire energy footprint of the energy sector.

Nevertheless, in considering the abovementioned, one of the environmental impacts of electronics is the carbon footprint or greenhouse gas emissions stemming from the production and consumption of electronic products. The size of the electronics sector and the socioeconomic importance of electronic products also mean that is almost impossible to forego fossil fuels and shift to alternative and renewable energy sources in an instant.

2. Impact From Resource Extraction

Another one of the critical environmental impacts of electronics centers on the extraction of other natural resources. The electronics sector is resource-intensive. The same research by Wang et al. mentioned that semiconductor manufacturing has an unexpected high water consumption situation. Fresh water and reclaimed water accounted for 96.6 percent and 3.2 percent of withdrawals from 28 semiconductor companies in 2021.

It is also important to highlight the fact that the sector relies on a large amount of raw materials. Some of these materials are scarce and non-renewable such as gold, silver, copper, and cobalt while others are toxic and hazardous such as lead, mercury, cadmium, and brominated flame retardants. The environmental impacts of these materials stem from mining, extraction, processing, transportation, and disposal processes.

Researchers Shen Zhao et al. estimated the environmental impacts of domestic extraction in China from 1992 to 2015. Their study noted that extraction increased by 372 percent during the period. Specific results showed that its impact on the environment included an increase in global warming potential by 195 percent, the release of respiratory inorganics by up to 408 percent, and an increase in abiotic depletion potential by 46 percent.

Nevertheless, based on its intensive material requirements, the electronics sector not only increases the potential for resource depletion but also produces other environmental externalities. For example, as reviewed by researchers, A. Villard, A. Lelah, and D. Brissaud, the extraction, processing, and disposal of metals produce environmental toxins that endanger wildlife and human health, and also result in water and air acidification.

3. Generational Electronic Waste

The most pressing environmental problem stemming from electronics is the generation of electronic waste or e-waste. These wastes are technically defined as discarded electrical or electronic devices. The generation of these environmental pollutants has also been attributed to the fact that the electronics sector is unsustainable because it is based on a linear economic model of production and a cradle-to-grave consumption mindset.

A 2021 report from the United Nations explained that around 50 million tons of e-waste is discarded each year. This exceeds the combined weight of all the commercial airliners ever made or is equivalent to Eiffel Towers filling the whole of Manhattan. The United Nations Environment Programme also mentioned that up to 90 percent of global e-waste are illegally dumped or traded each year in Asian and African countries.

It is also worth reiterating the fact that chips and other electronic components contain hazardous materials such as lead and mercury. Improper disposal can lead to environmental contamination while proper disposing has also been linked to an increased risk to the health of workers. Materials that are not hazardous to wildlife and human health are still a problem because they are nonbiodegradable and contribute to the global trash burden.

The Agbogbloshie area in Ghana is one of the largest informal e-waste dumping and processing sites in Africa. The non-profit organization Pure Earth has ranked this area as one of the 10 worst toxic threats in the world. Another study in China revealed that the environmental effects of electronic wastes include airborne dioxins, increased levels of carcinogens in duck ponds and rice paddies, and the presence of heavy metals in road dust.


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