Mass production of anything, he explained, depends on worker-hazardous and ecologically-ravaging mining, fossil-fuel-powered smelters, water-polluting chemicals, assembly plants, energy-guzzling and radiation-emitting telecom access networks, and an intercontinental network of bunker-fuel-polluting ships, planes and airports, trains and rails, and trucks and roads.
This man left me speechless.
Then, I read about a laptop’s cradle-to-grave energy use. A laptop will consume 81% of its lifetime energy before its end-user turns it on for the first time.1 The remaining 19% goes to operating and discarding or recycling the computer. This calculation does not include the energy used by access networks or data centers.
Call me digitally enlightened.
Would other people study electronics’ ecological costs—and move toward living within our ecological means?
Consider this an invitation to trace the supply chain of one substance in your smartphone (or another kind of computer).
STEP 1: Pick one substance used in manufacturing a smartphone.
The Screen: Aluminosilicate glass, aluminum, aluminum oxide, cerium, fluorinated greenhouse gas (F-GHG), gorilla glass, indium tin oxide, lead, lithium, nitric acid, oxide of silicon, potassium nitrate, sapphire, silicon dioxide, sulfuric acid, tin oxide.
The Battery: Aluminum, cadmium, carbon graphite, coal tar, cobalt, coltan, copper, graphite, lead, lithium cobalt oxide, lithium, manganese, mercury, nickel-metal hydride, organohalogen compounds, tantalum, zinc.
The Case: Aluminum alloys, bromine, magnesium, nickel, plastic, tin.
The Electronics (the circuit board, wiring, speakers, motors): Acetone, acetylene gas, antimony, arsenic, arsenic pentafluoride, arsine gas, benzene, beryllium, beryllium oxide, boron, boron tri-chloride (BC13), boron trifluoride, cadmium, charcoal, chlorofluorocarbons, chloroform, chromium, coal, copper, diborane, dysprosium, eucalyptus trees, gallium, gadolinium, gold, glycol ethers, hafnium, hydrochloric acid (HCL), hydrogen, hydrogen chloride gas, hydrofluoric acid, indium, lanthanum, lead, methylene chloride, neodymium-iron-boron, nickel, perchloroethylene, petroleum coke, palladium, phosphine, phosphorous, platinum, polychlorinated biphenyl, potassium, praseodynmium, quartz, scandium, silicon tetrachloride, silicon wafers, silver, sulfur dioxide, tantalum, terbium, tin, titanium aluminum nitride, titanium nitride, toluene, tri-chloroethylene (TCE), tungsten, water, wood, xylene, yttrium, zinc.
STEP 2: Describe what your substance does in manufacturing or operating a smartphone.
STEP 3: Trace your substance’s supply chain—and reference your answers. Note: below the questions, I list a batch of resources to get you started.
If your substance is an ore:
- In what countries is this substance mined?
- Who owns the mines?
- At the mine, what kind of work is needed? How much does a miner earn in a day? Do any children mine for this ore? What are common health impacts from mining this substance?
- To rinse the ores, how much water is used? What is the source of water?
- What impacts does mining this ore have on the region’s waterways, farming and wildlife?
- How many smelters and refineries does this ore travel through to become usable in a smartphone? By what means (air, ship, truck, train) is the raw material transported?
- What kind of workers does a smelter need? How much does a worker earn in a day? What are common health impacts of the work?
- How much electricity does the smelter consume in one day? What kind of fuel(s) power the smelter? What kind of toxins and emissions does it generate?
- How/does smelting this ore impact the region’s waterways, farming, public health and electric power grid?
- Can you access images of mining or refining this substance?
- What regulations protect miners and refinery workers? What regulations protect the region’s environment, wildlife and public health while the substance is mined or refined?
- In what year did mining of this substance begin?
- When will this ore be depleted?
- In the regions where mining and refining this substance take place, how have their local governance/democratic rule, per capita income, number of children per woman, life expectancy and educational opportunities for boys and girls changed in the last 25 years?
- Can this substance be recycled? What toxins are emitted by recycling it? How much water is used to recycle it? If it is recyclable, what companies in what countries recycle it?
If you substance is a chemical:
- In what countries is this chemical produced?
- Who owns the company that produces it?
- List your chemical’s ingredients.
- What kind of work does the chemical’s production require? What does a worker earn? How does the work impact workers’ health?
- What kind of toxins does this factory generate? Do they go into waterways, land and/or air? How does this chemical’s production impact the region’s farming, food chain and energy consumption?
- How much electricity does this factory use per day? Per month? What fuel is used to generate this electricity?
- Can you access images of this chemical and/or its production?
- What regulations protect the waterways, wildlife and public health around the manufacturing plant?
- By what means (air, ship, truck, train) is the chemical transported from its manufacturing plant to its next station?
- In what year did production of this chemical begin?
- Do any supply shortages or regulations threaten its future?
- How has this chemical’s production changed the region’s local governance/democratic rule, per capita income, number of children per woman, life expectancy, and educational opportunities for boys? for girls…in the last 25 years?
- Are less energy-intensive and/or less toxic alternatives to this chemical currently produced? What companies in what countries are producing (or researching production of) safer alternatives?
STEP 4: Share your findings with classmates, neighbors, co-workers.
STEP 5: Reduce your Internet footprint by 3% per month. Get your school, workplace and household to join you.
Limit video use. Delete unused data. Don’t let children use electronics until they master reading, writing and math on paper. Wait at least four years to upgrade to a new device. Rather than buying new equipment, enact right-to-repair legislation, access free repair manuals at ifixit.com and establish fix-it clinics in your town. If you’ve got a website, compress your image files, disable unnecessary plug-ins, limit data-intensive flashing photos and videos. Discover and share new ways to reduce.
STEP 6: Insist that manufacturers prioritize safer chemicals, less extractions and worker protections:
Buy raw materials and parts only from sources that verify worker and environmental protections. Make modular, repairable electronics that reuse and repurpose still-functional parts like ink cartridges and batteries. Make battery replacement easy and fire-safe. At the design stage, plan for a device’s second life.
RESOURCES For RESEARCH
For more resources, check out my reports at www.ourweb.tech/letters.
Compound Interest, “The Chemical Elements of a Smartphone,” Feb. 19, 2014. www.compoundchem.com/2014/02/19/the-chemical-elements-of-a-smartphone/
Green Chemistry & Commerce Council https://greenchemistryandcommerce.org/about-gc3/introduction
Green Screen for Safer Chemicals: finding safer chemicals and environmentally preferable products. https://www.greenscreenchemicals.org/
Rohrig, Brian, April 2015, “Smartphones: Smart Chemistry.” https://www.acs.org/education/resources/highschool/chemmatters/past-issues/archive-2014-2015/smartphones.html
Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition www.svtc.org
White, Heather and Lynn Zhang, “Complicit,” 2017. A documentary about computer assembly workers’ exposure to n-hexane. https://www.complicitfilm.org/
Andrae, Anders S. G. and Tomas Edler, “On Global Electricity Usage of Communications Technology: Trends to 2030,” Challenges, 2015, 6, 117-157; https://www.mdpi.com/2078-1547/6/1/117.
Andrae, Anders S.G., “Total Consumer Power Consumption Forecast,” a powerpoint presentation, October 5, 2017.
Climate, July 13, 2019, “Is Netflix Bad for the Environment? How Streaming Video Contributes to Climate Change.” www.ecowatch.com/young-spoken-word-poets-take-on-climate-change-2639230969.html
Coma, Miguel, on 5G’s energy use, https://www.meer.com/en/authors/943-miguel-coma
DeDecker, Kris, www.lowtechmagazine.com.
Cook, Gary, Jude Lee, et al., “Clicking Clean: Who is winning the race to build a green internet?” Technical report, Greenpeace, 2017. https://www.greenpeace.de/publikationen/20170110_greenpeace_clicking_clean.pdf
Kato, Kzuhiko, Akinobu Murata and Koichi Sakuta, “Energy Pay-back Time and Life-cycle CO2 Emission of Residential PV Power System with Silicon PV Module,” Progress in Photovoltaics Research and Applications, John Wiley & Sons, revised 19 December 1997. Note: manufacturing silicon for solar PV panels is similar to manufacturing silicon for transistors.
Mills, Mark P., “The Cloud Begins with Coal: Big Data, Big Networks, Big Infrastructure and Big Power: An Overview of the Electricity Used by the Global Digital Ecosystem,” 2013. https://www.tech-pundit.com/articles/ See also Mills’ Digital Cathedrals from Encounter Books, 2020; and “Unobtanium,” https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=308699784174165
Smil, Vaclav, “Your Phone Costs Energy—Even Before You Turn It On, IEEE Spectrum, 26 April 2016. https://spectrum.ieee.org/your-phone-costs-energyeven-before-you-turn-it-on
Strubell, Emma, A. Ganesh and A. McCallum, “Energy and Policy Considerations for Deep Learning in NLP,” 5 Jun 2019. https://arxiv.org/abs/1906.02243
Troszak, Thomas, “Why Do We Burn Coal and Trees for Solar Panels?”
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/335083312_Why_do_we_burn_coal_and_trees_to_make_solar_panels Manufacturing silicon for transistors and solar panels uses similar processes.
Glum, Julia, “The Median Amazon Employee’s Salary is $28,000. Jeff Bezos Makes More Than That in 10 Seconds,” https://money.com/amazon-employee-median-salary-jeffbezos/
Smith, Ted, David A. Sonnenfeld and David Naguib Pellow, Challenging the Chip: Labor Rights and Envornmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry, Temple University Press, 2006.
www.anatomyof.ai Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler, 2018, an anatomical map of human labor, data and planetary resources.
Abraham, David S., The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age, Yale University Press, 2015.
Amnesty International and African Resources Watch, “This is What We Die For: Human Rights Abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo Power the Global Trade in Cobalt,” 2016. https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/afr62/3183/2016/en/
Choi, Hye-Bin, et al., “The impact of anthropogenic inputs on lithium content in river and tap water,” Nature Communications, 2019.
Eichstaedt, Peter, Consuming the Congo: War and Conflict minerals in the World’s Deadliest Place, Lawrence Hill Books, 2011.
Hodal, Kate, “Death metal: tin mining in Indonesia,” 23 Nov. 2012. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/nov/23/tin-mining-indonesia-bangka
Jensen, Derrick, Lierre Keith and Max Wilbert, Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It, Monkfish Book Publishing, 2021. While focused on the ecological impacts of manufacturing, operating and discarding “renewable” power systems, the Internet demands similar substances. See also Julia Barnes’ documentary, “Bright Green Lies,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMJFQmBW4RE
Kara, Siddharth, Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives, St. Martin’s, 2023.
Katwala, Amit, “The spiraling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction,” 8.5.18; https://www.wired.co.uk/article/lithium-batteries-environment-impact
Klinger, Julie Michelle, Rare Earth Frontiers: from Terrestrial Subsoils to Lunar Landscapes, Cornell University Press, 2017.
Sovacool, Benjamin K., et al., “Sustainable minerals and metals for a low-carbon future,” Science, Vol. 367, Issue 6473, 3 January 2020. See Sovacool’s publications at https://profiles.sussex.ac.uk/p373957-benjamin-sovacool/publications
Standefer, Katherine, Lightning Flowers: My Journey to Uncover the Cost of Saving a Life, Hachette, 2020. Tracing a defibrillator’s elements.
Mims, Christopher, Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door—Why Everything Has Changed About How and What We Buy, HarperCollins 2021.
Schlanger, Zoe, “If shipping were a country, it would be the world’s sixth-biggest greenhouse gas emitter,” Quartz, 18 April 2018.
Lepawsky, Josh, Reassembling Rubbish: Worlding Electronic Waste, MIT Press, 2018. www.worldingelectronicwaste.xyz
McGovern, Gerry, World Wide Waste: How Digital is Killing Our Planet and What to Do About It, Silver Beach, 2020. www.gerrymcgovern.com
Needhidasan, S., et al., “Electronic waste–an emerging threat to the environment of urban India,” J. Environ Health Sci. Eng., Jan. 20, 2014; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3908467.
Purdy, Kevin, “How Eric Lundgren and BigBattery are Changing How We Think About ‘Used’ Batteries,” ifixit.com, April 12, 2021. https://www.ifixit.com/News/49861/how-eric-lundgren-and-bigbattery-are-changing-how-we-think-about-used-batteries
Asianometry, “The Big Semiconductor Water Problem,” March 9, 2022. https://asianometry.substack.com/p/the-big-semiconductor-water-problem
- Needhidasan, S., et al., “Electronic waste–an emerging threat to the environment of urban India,” Environ Health Sci. Eng., Jan. 20, 2014; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3908467.