What’s Your Tech’s Impact on the Environment?

By Philip Deatherage

We all contribute to the waste produced by the Information and Communication Industry. Our phone, tablet, computer, internet of things devices (devices with smart assistants like Alexa and Google Home, your WIFI enabled toaster, refrigerator and microwave), TVs, smart watches. Each day the list seems to grow as we add more technology to our lives. All these devices impact the environment through the impact of the manufacturing process, the mining of rare-earth metals, and the waste created when we discard our technology. Many of these devices also depend on the cloud which creates even more pollution from the manufacturing process and the generation of energy used.

In 2007, the Information and Communication Industry (ICT) contributed about 1% of the total global carbon footprint. In 2019, that number has tripled, putting us on track to see the impact from the ICT grow to over 14% by 2040. That is half that of the total current transportation industry’s impact. According to a study by James Suckling and Jacquetta Lee published in the International Journal of Life Cycle, even though consumers may be buying phones less often, they are buying bigger and more powerful phones which produce more CO2 emissions during the manufacturing process than their predecessors. The larger screens and more processing power also produce more CO2.

So, what can consumers do to lessen the impact on the environment from their devices? The biggest is by resisting that urge to upgrade every six to twelve months. The mining of the rare earth metals used in smartphones and other devices contribute to as much as 95% of the CO2 emissions from the device. While this may sound bad, it means that by keeping your device longer, you can greatly reduce the impact your devices are having.

When you are ready to upgrade, find a place that recycles e-waste. If your phone is still operational, and you are selling it or trading it in, make sure you unlock it and disable any features such as “Find My Phone.” Not turning off features like “Find My Phone,” causes companies to have to destroy the phone rather than refurbish it and leads to more unneeded waste.

When your phone breaks, have it repaired. This can reduce the amount of e-waste. If the device is out of warranty, use a third-party repair shop. If the device is under warranty (usually 1 year in the U.S.), many device companies will void the device warranty if the device is repaired at an “unauthorized” repair facility. This can mean costly repair costs. For example, as much as $199 to have Apple replace your battery, but at an unauthorized repair shop, about $50 ($25 for the battery and $25 for labor). This is why we need the right to repair. The right to repair is a proposed law that would give consumers the right to either effect common repairs themselves with kits sold by either the device company or third parties, or to have small shops repair their devices. In the United States, most electronics carry a 1-year warranty. In the European Union, devices are required to carry at least a 2-year warranty. Some consumer groups are pushing for the same two-year warranty that citizens in the EU enjoy, which has helped reduce waste. So, if your device is out of warranty, you have nothing to lose.

Mr. Deatherage is a second-year, dual-degree law student at Vermont Law School and Faculté de Droit – Cergy-Pontoise. He is concentrating on international business and technology law and plans to combine his 20 years of web development experience with his legal education to provide solutions in technology and international business law.