Technologists must look at the industry’s ‘make and dispose’ business model

Chris Johns: it is time for the technology sector to examine its legacy and contribution to seriously addressing climate change

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg meeting leaders of  UK political parties at the House of Commons in  London to discuss the need for cross-party action to address  climate change.  Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg meeting leaders of UK political parties at the House of Commons in London to discuss the need for cross-party action to address climate change. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

 

Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl, started her solo strike from school for climate activism outside the Swedish parliament in Stockholm just last August. On March 15th last an estimated 1.4 million schoolchildren in 112 countries, including here in Ireland, joined her in striking from school on behalf of climate change. A follow-up global event will occur next month.

Last Monday Thunberg was a prominent guest speaker at the London Extinction Rebellion. According to media reports, she told the crowd that all too frequently politicians have been able to sooth demands for action with “beautiful words and promises”.

“We are now facing an existential crisis, the climate crisis and ecological crisis which have never been treated as crises before, they have been ignored for decades.”

For those of us in the technology sector it is beyond timely that we examine both our legacy and our pressing contribution to seriously addressing climate change. It is all too comfortable to settle back and assert that the digital world can make a major positive impact to the global ecological crisis.

Carbon emissions due to travel, not just from commercial flights but even just daily commutes, can indeed be substantially reduced by remote working, video conferencing and imminently by virtual and augmented realities.

Cloud computing arguably reduces the requirement for computers on every desk and table-top.

Digitisation and connectivity do strengthen economies, fostering more efficient trading and services.

And yet.

In January the Wold Economic Forum published a report on a new “Circular Vision for Electronics” (available online at https://tinyurl.com/yyusescw). It asserts that every single year we are now producing 50 million tonnes of e-waste, which just annually is more than the total mass of all commercial aircraft built since the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk.

E-waste is defined as any discarded device with a plug, cord or battery. Half of all e-waste is personal devices – computers, screens, smartphones, tablets and TVs – with the remainder being larger domestic devices and commercial equipment.

Globally, less than 20 per cent of e-waste is recovered and recycled. The EU leads in e-waste recycling, but still only recovers 35 per cent. All the rest goes into land fill or incineration: about 5 kilograms per human per year.

Computing devices

There are currently worldwide an estimated 24 billion computing devices – driven by the “internet of things” – and on average more than three for every human. And yet the internet of things is expected to very dramatically grow even further. All of these devices will have an end-of-life: what proportion will have their composition recycled?

We rarely discard our jewellery and gold, but about 7 per cent of the annual e-waste is discarded gold. One single tonne of smart devices contains more gold than 100 tonnes of gold ore.

The mining of gold and heavy metals such as neodymium (vital for magnets in motors), indium (used in flat panel TVs) and cobalt (for batteries) is heavily polluting and with high carbon emissions.

We promote electric vehicles to reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuels, but batteries contain heavy metals such as lithium, cobalt, cadmium, lead, zinc, manganese, nickel, silver and mercury. A single electric vehicle battery may contain as much lithium as 1,000 smart devices. China and the EU have introduced laws requiring e-vehicle manufacturers to recycle their batteries, but other major markets have yet to follow.

As technologists can we not do so much better? As entrepreneurs, designers, product managers, marketing leaders, chief executives, board directors, venture capitalists, investors and shareholders, we should reconsider our industry’s “make and dispose” business model.

The digital industry has moved to software as a service, but we have not yet moved to hardware as a service. Why do we still need transaction-based device ownership rather than a subscription-based approach in which hardware is recovered, reconfigured and reissued?

Can we not design hardware to be future-proofed, by modular and extensible design? Should we not strive to eliminate all e-waste from our industry? Why cannot we move to a circular supply chain rather than our current mortifying linear model?

E-waste footprint

As consumers should we not challenge sales assistants, stores, and suppliers about the e-waste arising from their offerings at end-of-life? We do have the EU Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive. But when we consider buying a product is the sales assistant knowledgeable about how much of that product can be recycled, and whether alternative products in fact have a lesser e-waste footprint?

A very small number of electronics and electrical manufacturers are making remarkable efforts to reduce their e-waste and carbon emissions footprints. As consumers we should actively seek them out when we are purchasing or, better still, just subscribing for their products.

As employees we should consider whether our CV will be enhanced or damaged by our employer’s reputation in the global ecological crisis.

As managers, leaders and entrepreneurs we should ponder how we can demonstrate positive collective action as an industry to Thunberg and her fellow schoolchildren – rather than just more beautiful words and promises.

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