Technology Depleting Resources and Pollution

How Does Technology Use Natural Resources?

Most of the environmental impact of technology takes place at the beginning and end of a device’s life.

Impact of Production

  • Eighty-one percent of the energy a computer necessitates is expended during production, according to a study from the United Nations University. That is, it takes more energy to create the computer than it takes to run the computer for its entire working lifetime. That makes computers different than other household appliances, which tend to use more energy during their running lifetime than in production. As a result, no matter how zealous you are about turning off your computer, you are still implicated in a huge initial energy output.

  • The UN has calculated that producing the average computer and monitor requires 530 pounds of fossil fuels, 48 pounds of chemicals and 1.5 tons of water.
  • Santa Clara County, California is a major center for producing semiconductors for computers. As a result, Santa Clara County has more EPA-identified toxic waste sites, called Superfund sites, than anywhere else in the USA.

Impact of Disposal

  • The U.S. exports 50 to 80% of its e-waste to poor Asian countries for “recycling.” That probably sounds like a positive thing, but the word “recycling” belies the devastating environmental impacts of international waste dumping. What really happens to “recycled” technotrash is that it is processed by poor workers in rural towns in places like China and India. One of the most infamous examples of a tech recycling town is Guiyu, China. Informal recycling operations in these towns do not have the resources to safely recycle tech materials. They expose workers and their communities to shocking levels of toxic materials, turning towns into contaminated dumps.
  • A 2002 report by the Basel Action Network and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition produced a scathing critique of how the United States deals with its technotrash. Unlike most other developed nations, the United States has refused to ratify the 1989 Basel Convention, which prohibits transporting toxic waste (including technotrash) from one country to another. The convention prohibits any such cross-border transport, even for the purposes of recycling.  
  • Most technotrash that doesn’t make its way to Asia usually ends up in local landfills, where it poses risks to the surrounding communities.

 --Liz Soltan