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The Environmental and Human Dimensions of Electronics

June 10, 2018

There are two dimensions when talking about the impacts of electronics: environmental and human. 

 

Often, we are blessed to be able to switch out our (functioning) computers and mobile phones for the latest model. Other times, these electronics fail to function properly and even after repair, these machines seems lost. 

 

Nonetheless, the solution seems rather simple: go to the electronics store and buy a new one. But, behind that new television, kitchen appliance, computer, or mobile phone, is another story---one not thought of often enough or taken seriously enough in magnitude. 

 

 

 

The environmental dimension

The process begins with rare earth metals and their extraction. Extracting these metals contributes require highly energy intensive techniques. In addition, these metals, including mercury, chromium, cadmium, and lead, are toxic for the environment. Through the process of building electronics, and in particular, highly organized and complex units, the energy requirement is high as is the difficulty of recycling. 

 

About 40 million metric tons of e-waste is produced annually and most of it ends up in developing countries for "recycling" where environmental regulations are low and working conditions are poor. There are no strict protocols and regulations guiding e-waste handling in countries such as India, China, and Nigeria. Often, combustion of e-waste is conducted in order to recover desired metals. In the process, toxic materials get dispersed through regions as air particulates and deposited in soils that may be used for agricultural purposes. Groundwater stands to be affected as well through leaching. Lastly, when considering the environmental effects of combustion.... If an object required high energy to produce, the same is required for the disposal of. 

 

The human dimension

This is another instance in which the social ethics cannot be ignored when speaking of the environmental impacts of electronics. As detrimental it is to the environment, the making and disposal of electronics has detrimental health effects to workers as well. In addition to poor, near enslavement work, the mining of rare metals for tech products result in exposure to these metals and conditions of poor air quality. The similar applies in the taking apart and combusting of these materials. The results are long term chronic illnesses such as respiratory diseases, DNA damage, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and oxidative stress---to name a few. 

 

 

The market for electronics

Unfortunately, the marketing of electronics upholds the desire for the latest tech. In addition, these products are not made to last. Therefore, at least, we need to reconsider that switch to the latest model. It is often up to us to repair our machines as much as possible and share with others the environmental and social impacts of electronics. While we reap the benefits of being able to purchase a new machine as easy as a cycle (or car drive) to the store, others suffer the consequences. 

 

However, ultimately, machines do reach their end-of-life. At that point, we need to make sure that our tech gets disposed of properly. Our lifestyles, both personal and business, are heavily reliant on technology and it is difficult to see another way, but there needs to be a greater environmental and social responsibility. Raise the question, tell others about it, and think about it when you consider a new machine. 

 

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