The Dark Side of our Digital Revolution

Digitisation – it’s the latest thing and it’s everywhere. Over the last 30 years, increasingly rapid technological developments have thrust us into what is often called the third industrial revolution, with technology evolving from the analogue, mechanical, and electronic formats to the digital stage. Core to this revolution is the widespread use of digital logic circuits, aka motherboards, and printed wiring boards (the ubiquitous green plats covered in wiring and nodes). Some of our favourite devices have undergone digital surgery: cars, radios and even fridges are all receiving makeovers, being implanted with microchips, enhancing their functionality, speed and price.

The Digital Revolution has been accompanied by a boom in the electronics industry. One of the fastest growing industries worldwide, global sales almost reached $780 billion in 2012. This year, over 3.5 billion units of electronic goods will be sold all over the world; goods that bring us closer together, allow us to stay in touch, shrink the digital divide and grant more people access to information.

What’s more, the Digital Revolution has a powerful social dimension. As described in this CNN article, the kind of attachment to digital devices and brands displayed by their most zealous fans bears close parallels with religious devotion.

A Sydney shopper being celebrating his latest purchase: the iPad

It is impossible to deny the various benefits that the digital revolution has brought: more jobs, demand for skilled workers and efficient technologies that unleash creativity and innovation. The recent surge in tech start-ups is testimony to the relatively low barriers involved in setting up a tech company. More and more students are studying computer science and programming is becoming an essential skill.

However, all is not sunshine and rainbows. There are signs that this digital revolution may be heading down a one-way street of consumption and environmental degradation.

A few startling facts:

  1. The UN has assessed that 20-50 million tonnes of electronic waste is produced every year;
  2. On average, electronics are replaced every 18 months by consumers;
  3. Between 2008 and 2012, 1 billion computers entered the waste stream;
  4. Nearly 1 million tonnes of metal were used to manufacture PCs sold in 2007;
  5. 50-80% of electronic waste collected for recycling is shipped to developing countries, where it is dismantled in ‘back yard’ operations.

It is in the nature of the electronics industry that major producers like Apple, Dell and HP gain their competitive advantage by constantly pushing the innovation and features of products, and maintaining a pipeline of innovations, churning out new products every 12-18 months. This short-term innovation cycle feeds the consumer frenzy described above, which further fuels the need to outdo the competition by developing new technologies.

The operations of innovation, product development and marketing undertaken by brand name firms are completed in developed countries. The less glamorous and more toxic tasks of assembling and manufacturing electronics take place in developing countries, like China.

“Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.”

Current recycling rates are shockingly low, at about 10% of global production of electronic waste. As such, the electronics industry could almost be characterised as the pinnacle of the linear economy model: extract, produce, use, dispose. The Basel Action Network and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition found that in the USA, between 50-80% of the e-waste collected for recycling is exported to developing countries illegally. There, e-waste is dismantled in open acid baths, burnt in open fires near rivers and causes toxic harm to human and environmental health. Workers are paid a pittance of $1.5 a day to extract materials such as copper from mobile phones, printed wiring boards and other familiar devices.

The lack of an appropriate legislative infrastructure means that producers are currently not held accountable for the production of externalities and the ultimate destination of over 91% of e-waste branded products. Despite the EU having implemented the Basel Convention (that bans the exportation of electronic waste to developing countries) and the EU WEEE Directive, 75% of the electronic waste on the continent remains part of the ‘hidden flow’ of e-waste, which slips through regulation and recycling.

The illegal exportation of electronic waste is not without its supporters, most notably former Chief of the World Bank Larry Summers who appears to think that some parts of the world suffer from being “under-polluted”, with air pollution levels that are “probably vastly inefficiently low compared with Los Angeles or Mexico City”. Some arguments speak for themselves.

What’s more, all of that this “rubbish” is actually astonishingly valuable. For example, you can extract more gold from a tonne of mobile phones than you can from a tonne of gold mine ore. So, it might be true that landfills are the mines of the future.

An e-waste worker in Guiyu, China

The vicious model: produce, use, dispose.

By now you might have spotted the vicious circle: demand for electronics is nourished through brand loyalty, marketing and planned obsolescence, which puts pressure on raw materials. The global electronics industry is a complex network of brand firms and suppliers, with manufacturers exposing their staff to hazardous and unsuitable working environments, whilst their clients like Apple are being criticised for doing little to improve working conditions.

With electronics being replaced at least every 18 months, the waste is piling up and policies have failed to incentivise an appropriate infrastructure and take back schemes to deal with all this rubbish.

What lies ahead

This linear economic model of manufacturing simply will not work. At this current rate, we might see some of the following consequences in future:

1)    As the developing world industrialises, greater demand for electronics will increase the need to extract more resources, which are already dwindling;
2)    Companies are ever increasing their rate of innovation and product replacement, meaning that more products will become obsolete faster;
3)    Rising mountains of e-waste and poor legal and recycling infrastructure means we will continue to export waste to developing countries.

The need for change is urgent and the opportunities exist. The recent Rio+20 conference, despite its failure to produce concrete targets, recognised that “fundamental changes in the way societies consume and produce are indispensable for achieving global sustainable development”.

Calls for the private sector to engage with a green economy have been made, as the drivers for economic growth we have relied on thus far seem to be vanishing. It is important to recognise how such an innovative industry is actually undermining our ability to innovate in future and grow a sustainable society.


In the next blog post, I will explore how electronics are made and what their environmental impact is and where it lies: in production, use or disposal?

I’m currently researching the environmental implications of the electronics industry and how rising consumption of electronic goods and e-waste are drivers for a closed loop economy. As my research progresses, I will share data and findings on this blog. 


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