Environmental Impact of Information and Communication Technology

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Information and Communication Technology can have a high impact on the environment. Image by blary54

Information and Communications Technology (ICT) has changed our society remarkably in the last few years. Although its effects on our everyday lives is obvious, the effects that this technology may have on the environment are much less clear and seldom talked about. A recent article published in Nature, however, covers this topic in detail.

ICT: a Very Rapid Expansion

To understand the effect of ICT on the environment, the characteristics of this industry have to be considered.

One key feature is its great and continuously-increasing size. According to BCC Research, the ICT global market was worth $38.4 billion in 2010; the forecast is a growth to $58.4 billion by the year 2015. In plain words, this means that many people all over the world use ICT products, and that in the future, even more people will use ICT devices.

The consequence of this additional use will be an increasing impact on the environment; this will happen despite the fact that some ICT devices are more efficient, and with a potentially smaller effect on the environment.

Professor Eric Williams, from the Golisano Institute of Sustainability of the Rochester Institute of Technology, author of the Nature article, explains this concept with a very simple and appropriate example:

“Horse carriages were replaced by cars in the last century. Cars are more efficient than horses and have a smaller environmental impact per distance travelled. However, what happened was that more and more people used cars, because they were convenient and relatively cheap; the high number of cars in the street caused an impact on the environment greater that caused by horses, despite their higher efficiency. Something similar is happening now with ICT: the technology is more efficient than it was 20 or 30 years ago; however, this does not necessarily mean a reduced environmental impact.”

Constant Development

New and more advanced devices are always produced. Image by sqback

ICT is an industry in a state of constant change and development, with the continuous production of new, different, and more advanced devices. The manufacturing of these products, therefore, implies a very high level of technology and the use of specific elements/chemical compounds.

Some of these elements can be very toxic; heavy metals such as cadmium (Cd), lead (Pb) and arsenic (As), for instance, are all present in desktop computers or in standard computer monitors. Other compounds are also hazardous. An example can be the use of brominated flame retardants (BFRs). BFRs are chemicals which are applied to the electronic parts of the devices for safety reasons.

Possible Sources of Exposure

Exposure to the toxic compounds mentioned above can take place after the disposal of the ICT devices. There can be exposure, for instance, if these elements/chemicals leach from a landfill into the environment; clearly this process can cause damage and have noticeable impacts on the environment, both short and long term.

The incineration of parts of the ICT devices may also cause exposure to hazardous substances. The incineration of waste which contains these kinds of chemicals is forbidden by law. It can happen, however, that these parts may be accidentally incinerated together with other domestic waste. This can be particularly dangerous if FBRs are present, as during the combustion they can form brominated dioxins – very toxic molecules.

Another possible source of exposure is the re-use and/or recycling of these devices, or of part of the devices. Strict regulations are in place to recycle materials which may contain toxic elements; these, however, are not always applied in developing countries. In places like China, India or in some African countries, there is an “informal” market, to recover and reuse the valuable compounds of these ICT devices. Metals such as gold or copper, for instance, are present in the majority of the devices; they are recovered using processes without any safety precautions; these processes can generate hazardous compounds, posing a threat both to the environment and to the workers involved in them.

Energy consumption

The energy consumption associated with ICT devices is also an important issue to consider. For the majority of ICT devices, a greater proportion of the energy is necessary for manufacturing the device than for using the device itself.

Professor Williams explains:

“If we consider the energy used by a car, 12% is the proportion necessary for its manufacturing, while a much higher quantity (88%) is due to its use. For many ICT products, the situation is reversed. For a laptop computer, for instance, 64% of the energy is consumed for the manufacturing and only 36% for its use.”

For ICT devices, the energy required for operation is higher than for production. Photo by Clara Piccirillo, data from Williams, Nature.

The figure to the left shows other examples of the ratio between manufacturing and use-energy.

This difference between ICT devices and other products is due to the combination of two factors: on one side, manufacturing these objects requires a lot of energy, due to the high level of technology. On the other side, the average life span of ICT devices is shorter, as these kinds of devices are generally replaced much more often than other objects.

Technology Impacts on the Environment: A Complex Topic

Assessing the impact on the environment of the ICT industry is surely a complex issue, with many things having to be taken into account. Professor Williams says:

“All the elements described here are important; however, different groups will rank the importance of issues differently.. For people in developing countries working in informal recycling, having a job and reducing exposure to dangerous chemicals are surely the most important issues. Consumers living in rich developed countries, on the contrary, may consider more important the global effect on the environment, such as energy consumption and/or greenhouse emissions.”

Sources

BCC Research: 2010 Information Technology Research Review. Accessed December 10, 2011.

Williams, E. Environmental effects of information and communications technologies. Nature, 479, 354-358 (2011). Accessed December 10, 2011.

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© Copyright 2011 Clara Piccirillo, PhD, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Science

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