Life Cycle Pollution

The burgeoning global market in electronic and electrical devices, combined with shorter device life expectancies, is fuelling an unprecedented health crisis for children in the developing world—exposing them to dangerous chemicals and air pollutants at home, in their communities, and in places where they often work illegally in exploitative and hazardous conditions.

Children and digital dumpsites: e-waste exposure and child health, 2021 World Health Organization

The human health and environmental impacts from the pollution at every stage of the lifecycle of telecommunications equipment, from device and equipment manufacturing to data centers,  data storage and transmissions, is yet another critical sustainability issue. 

Smartphones and electronics require rare-earth metals and minerals, generally from supply chains that are connected to numerous human rights abuses. Tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold are “conflict minerals,” long fueling armed conflicts. Cobalt, an essential raw material used  for rechargeable lithium-ion batteries and electronic devices, is mined by hand in exploitative conditions by people of all ages including children as young as six years old.  Regulations seeking to ensure responsible sourcing and more transparency in supply chains have yet to adequately address the issue. 

Furthermore, mining for components used in electronics manufacturers generates toxic byproducts that contaminate soil and water.  Manufacturing is chemically intensive and has been characterized by Benoit Cushman-Roisin as “probably the dirtiest industry that we have in the world right now.”  In addition to the carbon impact, water and land footprints have yet to be fully addressed.  If not properly handled, the annual global carbon, water and land footprints from storing dark data alone is estimated to  approach 5.26 million tons, 41.65 Gigaliters, and 59.45 square kilometers, respectively.

Thousands of chemicals are used in smartphone and electronic device manufacture, including many chemicals known to be carcinogens, reproductive toxins, neurotoxins including lead, cadmium, brominated flame retardants, per- and poly-fluorinated chemicals, beryllium, hexavalent chromium, mercury, PVC and benzene. 

Production line workers in the electronics industry experience elevated rates of cancers and other diseases. At the other end of the life cycle, toxic e-waste and unsafe recycling methods further contaminate already environmentally polluted low and middle income communities. A significant amount of recycling internationally is informal wherein families pull apart electronics and separate the components by hand in their homes, resulting in heavy exposure to lead and mercury. Another example, power cords are burned to get to the valuable copper. This practice releases toxic substances into the air such as cadmium, chromium, and brominated flame retardants. The people burning the cords are doing so without masks or any worker protections. 

Flame retardant chemicals like triphenyl phosphate and tris phosphate have been found on the surface of phones, laptops, keyboards and mice. Consumers are exposed to chemicals such as organophosphate esters and plasticizers through their use of smartphones and electronics as well as via exposure to dust in their home. 

E-waste is an enormous and escalating problem. A record 53.6 million metric tonnes of e-waste was reportedly generated worldwide in 2019 with only 17.4 %  officially documented as formally collected and recycled. The United Nations University predicts e-waste will more than double by 2050, to reach approximately 111 million tonnes a year. Electronics right-to-repair and take-back systems have yet to adequately address the environmental e-waste challenges. Leachate produced from the e-waste in landfills, composting plants, e-waste processing plants, solid waste dumping sites and incineration plants is toxic to living organisms; the waste contaminates water, soil, air, and the food chain. 

Under international pressure from environmental groups, companies have taken some steps to “green” their products; however, the current lack of transparency in global subcontracting and outsourcing, paired with the lack of accountability and legal liability leave inadequate rights and rules to address the occupational and environmental issues. For example, although Apple announced it had stopped using the carcinogen benzene and n-hexane during final assembly of iPhone and iPads in 2014, the chemicals are still used in early production stages.  

Finally, electronics are designed with planned obsolescence. Personal devices are no longer designed for a long life, nor to be easily repaired. People are even encouraged to buy a new phone every year. Consumer advocacy and governments have roles in product standards and waste management.

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