The Electronics Industry's Impact On The Natural Environment

When assessing how the electronics industry impacts the natural world, many use the terms ‘double-edged sword’ or ‘necessary evil’. Staking a claim as one of the global economy’s largest industrial sectors, what we produce in our electronics industry can cause damage but also do a lot of good. This blog will look at both sides of the coin and the importance of corporate social responsibility.

Negative impacts on the natural environment

Electronic manufacturers are increasingly prioritising sustainability. However, our industry is undoubtedly damaging the planet. From the built-in obsolescence of many of our consumer goods to pollution resulting from the manufacturing process, here are areas we need to address.

Resource extraction

Up to 60 different elements can be found in complex electronics. These minerals are extracted from every single continent, bar Antarctica. The finite nature of these rare earth metals is not the only cause for concern. Mining processes are often fraught with environmental and ethical challenges. 

As well as using fossil fuels and destroying local habitats, many mines require large amounts of water to operate. Copper wiring is ever present in electronics, and copper mines can use up to 2273 litres of water per second. Not to mention, the mining of raw minerals in countries with weak labour laws is also associated with forced labour, poor conditions, and low pay. The highlighted elements below are classified as rare earth materials. 

Rare earth metals shown on the periodic table.

Creating e-waste

Electronic waste (e-waste) is arguably the most obvious negative impact on the environment at the hands of electronics. The world processes upwards of 50 million tonnes of e-waste per year. Most e-waste contains toxic chemicals like mercury and brominated flame retardants that easily seep into the soil and waterways. 

Recycling e-waste is undoubtedly better than dumping, but even this has flaws. As devices get smaller and smaller, they are more complicated and dangerous to disassemble for recycling. Burning e-waste to get to the valuable copper inside pollutes harmful toxins into the air. Tackling e-waste is a complex yet necessary challenge.

Fab construction

A semiconductor fab (fabrication site) is the lifeblood of our electronics industry. As the demand for components continues to increase, more fabs are constructed across the globe. As well as requiring large amounts of resources like concrete to build, many fabs are constructed in place of biodiverse habitats. A fab operating at full tilt uses copious amounts of energy, millions of litres of water, and creates hazardous waste

Component Sense acknowledges the need for reforestation to promote biodiversity and reduce CO2 from the air. We plant not one but two trees per order with our reforestation partner, One Tree PlantedMorag Dine from Component Sense.

“One of the reasons I joined Component Sense was to combat my sense of climate anxiety. It’s a good feeling to see your hard work making a difference — we’re saving electronic components from being sent to landfill every day, and have planted over 10,000 native trees so far. We plant where trees are most needed, such as in Australia after catastrophic wildfires, or in Mexico to help monarch butterfly populations,” said Morag Dine, Marketing Manager.

Positive impacts on the natural environment   

While the electronics industry has caused much damage over the last 50 years, many within the sector have been putting effort into making a positive change. When discussing the environmental impact of electronics, it is vital to acknowledge the potential for good.

Renewable and energy-efficient technologies

Cutting-edge electronics are crucial to combatting the climate crisis. All game-changing green technologies require increasingly complex components and circuit boards. Common sustainable technologies that are only possible thanks to microchips include: 

  • Wind turbines
  • Solar panels
  • Electric vehicles 
  • Efficient heat pumps

It is estimated that one-seventh of global energy is sourced by renewable means. This figure is only expected to grow as the world tries to prevent global warming from reaching 1.5C above pre-industrial levels

Technologies like carbon capture and water purification could also play a significant role in minimising climate change. The challenge for our global community is to help lesser-developed countries keep up with advancements. 

Man installing a solar panel on a roof.

Communications technology

The lockdowns resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic set in motion a movement of remote workers. Studies have found that people permanently working remotely produce under half the greenhouse gas emissions of workers who commute. It is only thanks to communications technology and laptops powered by state-of-the-art microchips that this is possible. 

Air traffic accounts for 2-3% of global CO2 emissions, whilst road traffic represents about 10%. With slim and affordable smartphones and personal computers, more and more families can connect over video calls. There is nothing like spending time with a loved one in person. However, technology keeps us connected without excessive need for flying or long road trips. 

Conservation and biodiversity monitoring

Analytics and data are at the core of understanding the natural world. Electronic devices utilising components help us understand trends so that changes can be made globally, including those regarding water and air quality.

The UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH) is a prime example of this conservation technology in action. UKCEH is using solar-powered biodiversity monitoring stations on farms to monitor the presence of wildlife. Remote sensing networks also provide early warnings before natural disasters, like earthquakes. These warnings can be a matter of life or death in extreme cases. 

Example of an earthquake alert being received on a smart phone.

Want to move to a sustainable supply chain?

Electronics play a crucial role in the world’s sustainable future and overall biodiversity, but current manufacturing practices are causing unnecessary harm. By transitioning to a sustainable supply chain and circular business model, electronic manufacturers can do much more good than harm in the grand scheme. 

While your excess and obsolete (E&O) component stock is only part of a broader issue regarding e-waste, it can reduce pollution and inspire other companies to make a positive change. 

Email Component Sense to learn more about redistributing your E&O inventory to keep it out of landfills.

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