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My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part IX — Hard Reckonings: The Nine Circles of E-Waste

Posted in Free/Libre Software, Hardware at 5:30 pm by Guest Editorial Team

By Dr. Andy Farnell

Series parts:

  1. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part I — 2021 in Review
  2. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part II — Impact of a ‘COVID Year’
  3. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part III — Lost and Found; Losing the Mobile Phone (Cellphone)
  4. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part IV — Science or Scientism?
  5. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part V — Change in Societal Norms and Attitudes
  6. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part VI — The Right Words
  7. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part VII — Staying the Course and Fake It Till You Make It?
  8. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part VIII — Who Teaches the Teachers?
  9. YOU ARE HERE ☞ Hard Reckonings: The Nine Circles of E-Waste

Penguins pair

Summary: Dr. Andy Farnell shares his knowledge of the great extent to which technology pollutes and ruins this planet, the only inhabitable planet, especially when overused (or used rather poorly, recklessly, lavishly, excessively, exceedingly, sparingly, selfishly for the sake of class vanity/voyeurism)

The problem of e-waste came into full focus for me in 2021. Prior to writing Digital Vegan I had not seen any connection between my fervour for technology and effects on the planet. I assumed that computer hardware I throw away creates a negligible environmental impact and that most of it is successfully recycled. In fact Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) is a significant problem. Two neighbouring issues are the real costs of production of electronics and the energy costs of running them.

“I found it horribly disappointing to face these facts, as like most computer scientists I’ve basked in the narrative that “at least digital technology is helping save the planet”.”In this article I don’t want to go too much into the extraordinary statistics around the subject. Please follow the links and read the books. However, in short, digital life is “costing us the Earth”. It’s at a scale comparable with global transport, fossil fuel burning and forest erosion. It’s one of the “Big Factors”. Each year we throw away billions of gadgets creating hundreds of millions of tons of waste and the consequences are alarming.

I found it horribly disappointing to face these facts, as like most computer scientists I’ve basked in the narrative that “at least digital technology is helping save the planet”. Surely communications stops unnecessary travel? Surely the efficiencies enabled by digital management reduce carbon overall? We are the good guys right? In a crude mechanical world that runs on oil, are we not beings of electricity and light, spotless pioneers of the meta world? Nothing could be further from the truth.

“Digital is physical. Every byte is supported by an atom. Every digital action costs the Earth energy.” – Gerry McGovernWorld Wide Waste 2021

Pondering this made me realise, the intersection of capitalism and digital technology can only be described as nine circles of an inferno, each interlocks with and confounds the others.

Circle One: Demand.

In the outer ring we have the totally unnecessary demand created by advertising, social configuration and addiction. These are predominantly the topics I deal with in Digital Vegan. Peer pressure to have “up to date” devices creates “techno-vanity”. Over-complex and poor quality web and “app” technology ensures a bariatric bloat of obscenely inefficient software that in turn fuels demand for more powerful hardware. The relationship between the software and hardware sides of BigTech is a closed feeding loop. Carriers encourage phone subscribers to dump perfectly good handsets during Black Friday and Cyber Monday orgies of consumption. We simply buy way too much stuff and extract only a fraction of is value before disposing of it.

Circle Two: Materials

Some of my research this year has been directed toward understanding the origins of material components of digital tech. This is circle two. Rare-earth elements are, eponymously, in rather short supply. Their mining and supply is the cause of wars, displacements, massacres, corruption and shady geopolitical machinations. Some are dubbed “conflict minerals” and their supply is officially regulated, but as you would expect, given extraordinary demand, regulation is weak and corruption common. Politically, the road-map for their exhaustion is ugly beyond imagination, and probably includes new wars for mineral rights in Africa and Antarctica.

Circle Three: Manufacture

Beyond raw materials let’s consider the manufacturing cost of electronic goods. There are three substantial problems afoot. The first is pure energy costs. By the time something as tiny as an iPhone is made it’s consumed a quarter gigajoule of raw energy, in silicon wafer processing, aluminium smelting, copper extraction and so forth. In terms of CO2 produced, it’s about 25kg, but the process also requires ten thousand litres of processed cooling water! That’s an extraordinary hidden cost in a world where clean drinking water is in short supply for some people. That 25kg is only what is required to create the device, before any logistics of getting it to you.

“The notorious Foxconn factory is likely only the most visible face of what are essentially slave labour camps in India, China and elsewhere.”The second issue here is global markets. We neither produce nor dispose of electronics close to its use point. If it’s shipped from China and flows through the typical supply lines of BigBox warehouses such as Amazon or Walmart, it accrues a further 25kg of carbon dioxide emissions.

The third issue is labour relations. The notorious Foxconn factory is likely only the most visible face of what are essentially slave labour camps in India, China and elsewhere. Mostly female workers, many underage, eat rotting food, live, sleep and work in dangerous conditions, experience physical abuse and sexual molestation, and are on permanent suicide-watch. We all seem quite happy that this is the price of our cheap iThings.

Circle Four: Operation

A factor that shocked me is the overall operating costs of digital, in terms of the networks and data-centres, microwave links, air-conditioning, and so forth. Using a phone for one hour per day consumes 1250kg of carbon dioxide in a year, or the equivalent of flying from Paris to New York. That’s before we even think about the colossal storage facilities and cloud services of Google, Amazon, and Microsoft in the civilian sector, and the gargantuan data centres intelligence agencies like the NSA are building for “Total Information Awareness”. Even if you accepted the ideological basis of the surveillance state, a valid objection would stand on environmental grounds alone, as the “collect it all and keep forever” mentality is unsustainable even in the short term.

Circle Five: Maintenance

I also spent time looking at the life-cycle of computers. Can they be reused, repaired, upgraded, side-graded, re-homed or repurposed? What happens when we decommission them? Can they be broken apart to reuse modules? What happens to the scrap steel, aluminium, and the waste electronics containing thousands of valuable, toxic or otherwise dangerous compounds? The sensible thing is to keep them operating as long as possible. We should look after digital gadgets.

“One problem with maintenance is knowledge. Simple skills like changing a battery or soldering a broken connector are vanishing from the world. Concomitant with spreading ignorance is changing attitudes, as Western “consumers” consider it beneath them to turn a screwdriver.”I am a big fan, and occasional contributor to cheapskates guide, a remarkable web resource that champions reuse and care for digital electronics. The author also spends time researching, testing Linux and other operating systems on old hardware, and exploring more human-centred approaches to digital lifestyle.

One problem with maintenance is knowledge. Simple skills like changing a battery or soldering a broken connector are vanishing from the world. Concomitant with spreading ignorance is changing attitudes, as Western “consumers” consider it beneath them to turn a screwdriver.

Other reasons people baulk at maintaining older equipment include space. Bulky computers seem a luxury in the ever diminishing urban living-spaces. A good reason to scrap older gear is that it’s much less power-efficient, so replacing an old tower computer with a Raspberry Pi might save a lot of electricity overall. Digital rights sometimes conflict with environmental concerns, for example if hard-drives with plenty of remaining service life are shredded for data protection reasons.

Circle Six: Growth

Generally, all-factors-growth in technology continues at between 5 and 7 percent annually. Half of the world owns at least one active smartphone or network connected device. The average Chinese person has three. That means we still have potentially 3.5 billion more people who might want to get connected, and an exploding range of new services that tech companies want to offer, or foist-upon, the other half of the planet. People are cycling devices at approximately 18 month intervals, bringing the total annual energy cost – just of production – to around 2EJ per year of use, currently ten percent of all electricity production. That’s not even considering operation costs or mentioning the energy costs of proof-of-work cryptocurrencies. There are no reliable overall figures but it looks like we may be using 25% of all global energy on digital.

“There are no reliable overall figures but it looks like we may be using 25% of all global energy on digital.”Not only is the numerical quantity of devices growing, and the measured activity of those devices, but the footprint of each unit of use is also growing despite more power efficient CPUs. We simply squeeze more function in. Though these units of energy seem insignificant, they are very significant observed at scale.

For example; roughly, a 1990′s style simple HTTP web page of about 1kB consumed the energy of tossing a coin, or a bird taking flight. A modern web page makes thousands of connections and brings down tens of megabytes of data just to load a page of text. It consumes as much energy as a cup of coffee or an apple. Now multiply that by a conservatively estimated 10 billion per second.

This growth also impacts on device longevity. Sheer speed of development renders any gadget apparently worthless within months of being unboxed. These factors contribute to billions more discarded devices constituting hundreds of millions of tonnes of e-waste.

Circle Seven: Software Quality

Then there is the laughable quality of software running on our gadgets. Software is the only kind of engineering that gets measurably less efficient every year. Bloat, reckless software engineering and awful security reduce the value of devices. Many IoT devices are junk and will incur tremendous clean up and disposal costs because they were designed with bad software. Only recently have any government standards of basic quality, security and fitness for purpose touched the “Internet Of Things”. BIOS and firmware updates sometimes render devices broken, but so does the lack of updates in a world where everything else is changing. Much of this can be seen as a software quality issue.

Circle Eight: The Law

Assuming that we could overcome the practical and political obstacles to our digital bonfire of resources, we still live in a society that gives legal incentives for, indeed thoroughly rewards, conspicuous and unnecessary waste. First consider the perverse incentives of manufacturers to deliberately break, inhibit, corrupt and maliciously control hardware as designed obsolescence. We have also failed to defend “consumer law” regarding quality, ownership, contract and proper remedy against abusive vendors.

There are so many laws that favour the wasteful behaviour of tech-giants, like trade agreements, DMCA type provisions, regioning, copyrights, patents, trademarks and so on. These maximise corporate profits by crippling peoples’ ability to share, repair, reuse and recycle technology. They guarantee landfills must swell with more e-waste.

Circle 9: Disposal

My father-in-law is a Nobel prize winner who, along with a team of pioneering chemists contributed to what is now known as the Kyoto Protocol. We’ve had many interesting chats on subjects of his expertise, one of which is “forever chemicals” – the bio-accumulative, mutagenic, indestructible constituents of much electronic technology. Electronic goods contain lots of these, used as fire retardants and waterproofing agents.

Whether obsolete and insecure by design, incompetence or pure malice, we are ensuring that any phone, IoT device or “smart” TV has a business-class privilege boarding pass for the “recycling boat” to Africa, China or India.

“Whether obsolete and insecure by design, incompetence or pure malice, we are ensuring that any phone, IoT device or “smart” TV has a business-class privilege boarding pass for the “recycling boat” to Africa, China or India.”On arrival the shipping containers are emptied into illegal open “recycling” sites, beside a river or lake, where child labourers smash it up with hammers, burn and wash the fragments with acid in open pyres. Welcome to the inner circle of Hell. The slurry, when crystallised reclaims a small percentage of valuable metals, but also releases toxic heavy metals, lead, mercury, cadmium, and chromium that wash into the water or leach from poor temporary storage.

The children inhale a lethal mixture of particulate carcinogens, from both the crushing and burning steps. The life expectancy of these workers does not bear thinking about. In addition, vast quantities of dioxins, phalates, and bromo-fluorocarbons belch into the atmosphere where, after falling as contaminated rain into the oceans they will cause sterility, cancers and birth defects for potentially hundreds of years.

What to do?

From the chemistry of electronic products, their energy and water use, and their longevity, to effects of waste on the environment… this year I’ve read much more than makes me feel happy. It feels bad, because I am a way above average contributor to the problem (from where I write I can see at least seven operational computers right now). Here’s a factor where I definitely cannot criticise anyone else.

“It’s one small part of thinking as a Digital Vegan.”Maybe much of it is untrue. the statistics are dizzying. One cannot gain an empirical feel for what is happening on a global scale. There is so much to take in, from chip fabrication, VLSI composition, technologies for recycling and the political/legal problems of hardware monopoly, global skills, manufacturing politics, questionable provenance of raw materials and supply chains.

I don’t know what we can do to work towards Greener Gadgets and tackle World Wide Waste 2021. I suggest you do more research on the real costs of your convenience, such as this article by Katie Singer or this by Alba Ardura Gutiérrez, to pick a couple of recent ones at random. It’s one small part of thinking as a Digital Vegan.

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