Sustainable Technology & Its Usage

A better future needs sustainable technology – that which lasts, can be re-used and recycled within a circular economy. It also needs clever technology that improves the use and sharing of resources.  Technology need not take up all of our time – it can be a tool to make better use of it!

The 21st century has given birth to the “internet of things”, excessive use of social media and smartphone obsession.  People are continually upgrading their tech and as a result, we are mining more and more rare earth metals, whilst filling the land with toxic waste.  We are holding and transferring more data that fill up more servers that use land and incredible amounts of energy.

Here you will find a means to rethink the use of technology, by learning about the environmental implications of tech and how your own decisions can make a difference.

The manufacturing of technology

We extract from the Earth iron, aluminium, copper, zinc, lithium and use many other materials, not least plastics and glass, to manufacture the technology we use every day.  All our tech items that use batteries rely on rare earth metals which are extremely difficult to extract from the ground. These vital ingredients are also in short supply and are only found in a very limited number of regions worldwide.

The extraction of these materials is energy, water and land intensive, and when it gets to manufacturing, there is a huge energy cost.  Even when including over 50% of recycled materials into production, carbon emissions associated with constructing a washing machine come at a 1/4 tonne of CO2. In comparison, regularly used items such as modern mobile phones will create around 1/10 of a tonne.

The disposal of technology

Disposing of these items is hazardous to wildlife and human health. Such has been recognised in legislation, including the EU Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, which requires manufacturers to have a responsibility to take back and recycle items.  However, items are often difficult to recycle and are sent by the boatload to the East, where it is difficult to trace where they end up.

There is hope now that battery technology is becoming more environmentally friendly. Batteries are lasting longer and are being made of less impactful materials.  Manufacturers are also increasingly thinking about how they can take back their items more easily for re-use within the next generation of increasingly sustainable tech.

Top tips – sustainable technology and purchasing

  • Buy less.  The simple answer to reducing the impact from manufacturing is to buy less and use your items for longer.  The fractional improvements in technology to stimulate the next purchase give very short-term rewards.  Why not save the money and be happy with what you’ve got?
  • Borrow items.  For things we use rarely there’s often the option for hiring or simply borrowing from a neighbour.  It could be you need a sewing machine or a saw to do a one-off job.  Often we buy them because they’re relatively cheap.  Consider borrowing, it means an item gets better use and that it doesn’t clutter your house.
  • Get second hand items.  Technology is so fast moving these days that often you can win easily by getting a year-old item which someone has already become bored of. You can even exchange your items and get paid for it!  Why not help the world and your wallet in this way?
  • Buy items that support a circular economy and last longer.  Check out information on manufacturers.  Often it can be simple things like how cheap it is to replace a screen or battery in a mobile phone that make a difference.  Some manufacturers glue them in, some make them more accessible – the latter manufacturers are thinking about the circular economy.
  • Take your waste items to an electronic shop.  The majority of shops selling electronic items are mandated to take back electronic items so that they are taken back to the producer to be reprocessed into another item.  This is a more efficient way of getting your electronic items recycled. 
  • Separate electrical waste when disposing of it. In most household collections batteries and electrical waste is picked up separately.  Make use of this, as otherwise your toxic waste could well end up in landfill and will not be recycled.

The environmental cost of technology

We all have incredible access to technology, which in turn increases our use of it – from washing our clothes more often through to being glued to our screens.  We have more gadgets than ever and we are constantly looking for ways to use them.

The annual electricity used to power a TV results in 1/20 tonne of carbon (2% of our carbon footprint). However, data centres that power things like Netflix, as well as mobile phone data infrastructure, use between 1/2 and 1 tonne of CO2 per person (5-10% of our carbon footprint).

As an alternative to overusing technology, deciding to use it less can be life enhancing.  It helps us reconnect with people and nature, whilst being more creative.  Avoiding overuse is the ultimate goal in better living and using sustainable technology. 

Top tips – reducing environmental impacts of tech

  • Use technology with friends and family. Watching something together at a pub or in a family home means you get to talk about it. This also means you are sharing, with each person causing a fraction of the impact they otherwise would.
  • Make the best use.  Try using your washing machine and tumble dryer less. Also, where you can, use a wireless or wired network to connect to the internet, as mobile data carries a much bigger environmental cost.

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