CAUSES OF DIGITAL POLLUTION

Whenever we use our mobile phone, laptop or smartwatch, it has a considerable ecological footprint, from the moment we purchase it until we buy a new model.

To face this specific pollution that is still unknown to the mass market, we created at Digital For The Planet what we call Digital ecology® and that we talked about in our previous article. Following its publication, many of you requested more information about the origins of digital pollution. We then created an infographic and added some more detailed explanations you can find below.

The origins of digital pollution are diverse.

1- Manufacturing

In total, 710 million electronic devices were manufactured in 2015. They contain rare metals that deplete non-renewable reserves. They are often sourced in Africa, including in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for coltan and lead to armed conflicts and population relocation. Moreover, the legislation in these countries often allows children labour. At Digital For The Planet, we encourage a global and ethical approach to be able to do conscious choices, which is also part of the sustainability definition claimed by the UN.

Smartphones manufacturing, from material sourcing to assembly, accounts for more than 80% of environmental impacts. The ores and precious metals contained in electronic devices can be toxic for manufacturers, if in contact with waste, and for the environment. Some components such as chromium are now prohibited because of their toxicity.

Transportation also has an important environmental footprint as for instance a mobile phone goes 4 times around the world from the material sourcing until the moment the consumer purchase it. The different parts of an electronic device often come from all over the world which results in a lot of marine, fluvial or air transportation.

2- Practices

To begin with, we would like to share with you a few key figures related to the usage of electronic devices:

  • Digital greenhouse gas emission is about to overpass the total civil aviation industry’s
  • Digitization represents 16% of electricity consumption
  • Electricity consumption due to digitization increases by 8.5% per year

An important amount of energy, that is either powered by fossil fuels or renewable energies, is needed to recharge devices, power phone network infrastructures and store data.

Data centres are considerably polluting. They are often located in Northern countries that are cold as they need to be cooled constantly. It allows to use less energy on this effect and it’s generally less costly there. However, there are side effects as it accelerates ice melt in Sweden for instance.

Servers, which are the data centres units, generate tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

3- E-waste and recycling

The 710 million electronic devices manufactured in 2015 generated 1.5 million tonnes of waste and are the equivalent of 166 times the size of the Eiffel tower.

Devices recycling is an environmental stake as the majority are sent to the rubbish dump and contain parts that can be dangerous for people and the environment. They are usually transported to Southern countries such as China, where it costs less to sort but where there is already an issue with electronic devices recycling.

Overall, only 1% of the mobile phones are recycled.

Many electronic devices are also built on planned obsolescence however 59% of the replaced mobile phones still work, studies show.

Photography taken during a civil war in Congo, generated by ores mining industry.