According to Two Sides, the magnitude of the negative impacts resulting from the use of electronic communication should be cause enough for companies to abandon their unverifiable greenwashing claims that going digital is better for the environment.
Many banks, utilities, telecoms and other service providers continue to encourage (and sometimes force) their customers to switch from paper to electronic communications, using claims that electronic communication is ‘greener’, ‘saves trees’ or ‘protects the planet’ as justification.
There is no arguing that the use of electronic devices has exploded over the last decade. According to a 2019 study by the Pew Research Center, the vast majority of Americans (81%) now own smartphones, up from just 35% in 2011. Nearly three quarters of U.S. adults now own desktop or laptop computers, and roughly half now own tablets and e-readers. This boom has resulted in many advances that make their lives more efficient, productive and enjoyable. But it has also brought with it serious and increasing environmental, health and economic consequences.
According to the recently released Global E-waste Monitor (GEM) 2020, a record 53.6 million metric tons (Mt) of electronic waste was generated in 2019, up 21% in just five years. For perspective, last year’s e-waste weighed as much as 350 cruise ships the size of the Queen Mary 2, enough to form a line some 122km (76 miles) long. The GEM describes e-waste as discarded products with a battery or plug. Small electronic equipment, screens and monitors, small IT and telecommunication equipment comprised more than half of global e-waste last year. The U.S. and Canada collectively generated 7.7 Mt of electronic waste in 2019. That’s nearly 21kg (46 lbs.) per person, and nearly three times the worldwide per capita generation of 7.2kg (16 lbs).
The report also predicts global e-waste will reach 74 Mt by 2030, almost a doubling of e-waste in just 16 years. This makes e-waste the world’s fastest-growing waste stream, fuelled by higher consumption rates of electric and electronic devices, short device life cycles and few options for repair. Many people now see devices and appliances as ultimately disposable, simply discarding them when it is time for an upgrade. Others may hold on to them, but are unable to find a cost-effective way to repair them.
The GEM found that only 17.4% of e-waste was collected and recycled globally in 2019, with only 15% of e-waste in North America recycled. Most e-waste was either dumped or burned rather than being collected for recycling and reuse.
Numerous toxic and hazardous substances are found in electronic equipment and pose severe risk to the environment and human health when not handled in an environmentally sound manner. Recent research cited in the GEM found that unregulated e-waste is associated with increasing numbers of adverse health effects, from birth defects and altered neurodevelopment to DNA damage, adverse cardiovascular and respiratory effects, and cancer.
E-waste also represents a huge economic loss. When electronic devices are simply thrown away, high-value, recoverable materials such as iron, copper and gold are thrown away with them. ‘If we cannot recycle electronic waste, we’re not taking back materials into the loop, which means we have to extract new raw materials,’ said Vanessa Forti, the lead author of the GEM. It is estimated that the value of raw materials in all global e-waste generated in 2019 equaled a staggering $57 billion US, more than the gross domestic product of most countries.
The miniaturisation of equipment and the ‘invisibility’ of the infrastructures used leads many to underestimate the environmental footprint of digital technology. This phenomenon is reinforced by the widespread availability of services on the ‘cloud’, which makes the physical reality of use all the more imperceptible and leads to underestimating the direct environmental impacts of digital technology.
According to The Shift Project, a carbon transition think tank, the energy consumption required for digital technologies is increasing 9% each year and the share of digital technology in global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions could double to 8% by 2025.
The contrasts between electronic and paper communications are well-defined, as paper is made from a renewable resource: trees from sustainably managed forests. With a recovery rate of 66% in the U.S. and 70% in Canada, paper is recycled more than any other commodity in North America. The U.S. pulp and paper industry also emitted 35.7 Mt of GHG emissions in 2018, which was only 1.2% of total direct U.S. emissions.