How Green Are Your Gadgets?

New research looks at the environmental cost of consumer electronics

24 April 2015

Photo: iStockphoto

A new research report published last July in the IEEE Conference on Technologies for Sustainability journal examined the entire life cycle of popular electronics from cradle to grave, taking a deeper look into their environmental impact.

Researchers from the Western Norway Research Institute, in Sogndal, took into account raw materials and amount of energy used to make devices, manufacturing processes of components, distribution and sales, product use, and end-of-life treatment, such as disposal or recycling. 

The report reviewed devices such as mobile phones, laptops, and even electric cars. The findings showed the unintended consequences of manufacturing the components, such as certain metals and solar cells, for such devices. Researchers considered a variety of factors and concluded that more developers could make better design choices if they understood the full scope of what goes into producing consumer electronics.

LESSONS LEARNED

Using gold to make electronic components adds up to be more than the price of the metal itself. Gold (found deep in the Earth’s crust) requires an expensive and large mining operation to extract it. (Fun fact: There’s enough gold found in computers and televisions that some people mine these devices to sell the metal.) Materials such as tin, nickel, and aluminum, which are closer to the surface, can be extracted with far less pollution while still getting the job done.

Another process to pay attention to is the production of solar cells. Traditionally made with crystalline, silicon, and semiconducting wafers, solar cells require a series of consecutive chemical baths to be manufactured. The cells must be rinsed in pure water after each bath to avoid contaminants from being transferred from one bath to the next. According to the researchers, the wet-chemical based process used by manufacturing plants in Malaysia and the Philippines requires as much as 15,000 liters of high-purity processed water per minute for a 1.4 gigawatt production facility.

Instead, dry etching—or showering the material with ions—and using fluorine gas can reduce emissions by 44 percent, the report shows. These techniques also require almost 90 percent less water. Fluorine gas, however, is highly toxic and regulations would have to be taken into account, which means it’s not a perfect solution.

And while electric cars are cleaner in that they produce fewer emissions than cars with internal combustion engines, they also use copper wires and lithium-nickel cobalt-manganese batteries. Excavating these metals produces toxic emissions, as does recycling the batteries. In the long run, the researchers question whether such vehicles are better for the environment than gasoline cars.

THE END RESULT

When it comes to commercial applications, there is one major problem to consider. Researching the life cycle of products requires resources and often companies don’t prioritize being environmentally responsible over quickly getting products to market.

The researchers suggest that consumers could help change that thinking by demanding environmental labeling of products. They argue that a label like “Life Cycle Assessment,” meaning that it has gone through a standardized inspection, would enable people to make informed decisions about which electronic items they might buy if they are concerned about protecting the environment. (IEEE, in fact, offers a standard to assess the environmental impact of consumer electronics.)

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