Short Circuit: The Lifecycle of our Electronic Gadgets and the True Cost to Earth

In Short Circuit: The Lifecycle of our Electronic Gadgets and the True Cost to Earth – a 2013 report by The Gaia Foundation – we explore how our love affair with electronic gadgets, and the commercial, profit-driven agenda of the system that creates them, is stimulating unsustainable demand for metal and mineral extraction and plundering the planet.

Read the full report here: Short Circuit

Behind the Packaging – The True Cost of Tech

In recent years, technological developments in digital communications have led to a huge increase in the personal ownership of mobile devices, in particular, small, portable internet devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops. These machines are fast becoming indispensible parts of everyday life. The number of mobile devices is projected to continue to increase – on course to exceed the number of people on Earth by the end of 2013. And this is only the beginning: per capita ownership is expected to reach 1.4 in 2017, representing a total of 10 billion devices.

Today, marketing strategies have created a culture of rapid technology upgrades, so that the time periods between purchasing new items are becoming shorter and shorter. They are often replaced by newer models after 18 or even 12 months, as a matter of course. Their slick designs are alluring but quickly out-dated, their colourful retina screens soon to be replaced by ever-more sharp and tantalizing displays.

This inbuilt obsolescence is one of the means by which electronics companies can ensure a perpetually hungry market. Many mobile phones have embedded batteries that are difficult to replace; when computer components break they usually cannot be easily removed and fixed; and hardware is not designed to keep up with software. Increasingly, it is cheaper to buy the new version than to fix the old one. These strategies are effective techniques for increasing sales. This has quickly become a habit which is hugely wasteful, and requires more and more elements from the Earth to be found, extracted, processed and then marketed – generating pollution at every step along the way, and ultimately ending up in toxic dumps.

The thinner and sleeker the design of our gadgets, the greater the illusion surrounding their real impact, and their true cost. Smaller does not equate to the product being ‘lighter’ on the Earth, because every new model requires the use of yet more resources and energy and the extraction of more specialised elements.

The materials that make up these gadgets are dug out from the body of our Earth and involve a complex and trans-national supply-chain. A mobile phone is made up of many types of metal, including copper, tin, cobalt and gold. Huge amounts of Earth are displaced and spoilt, biodiversity is destroyed, vast quantities of water are used for processing, and precious fossil fuels are squandered for energy at every stage of its extraction. As a result, enormous areas of toxic wasteland are created and left for future generations to deal with – and this is before the products have even been manufactured. These items are still yet to be made, marketed, purchased, used, and then dumped when the next version hits the market. And so the short circuit continues on, relentlessly…

All those involved in the supply chain – from mining companies to manufacturers, as well as us ‘consumers’ – either presume that there will be an infinite supply of metals and minerals required to build these products, or choose to turn a blind eye to the reality of the situation. This short-sighted way of thinking epitomises much of our modern economic and financial systems and approaches. In addition, finding these elements from the Earth is becoming highly politicised, with nations vying for territorial access and control of ever more remote areas, with frequently bloody results. Neither companies nor governments are taking serious steps to reduce the need for new mining, nor to improve systems for the recycling of all these metals and minerals.

As a result, the electronic waste (e-waste) produced by these throwaway gadgets is piling up. The vast majority of the world’s e-waste currently ends up dumped or burned, contaminating air, water and soil. It is estimated that only a small amount of the world’s e-waste is properly handled in recycling processes. Instead, the majority of ‘recycled’ electronic goods are shipped to Asia or Africa where they are ‘recycled’ in appalling social and environmental conditions, creating massive pollution, human health problems and water and soil contamination. In failing to create effective recycling systems, we are thus outsourcing our toxic waste and turning parts of the world into ‘digital dumps’.

With the lifespan of electronic goods becoming shorter, and the extraction of the mineral and metal elements which make up these gadgets ever more destructive, it is clearly time for the electronics industry to take responsibility for developing a new approach. The depletion of our planet’s minerals and metals; the horrific scale and intensity of our capacity to gouge deep toxic wounds in the body of our Earth; the geopolitical scramble for control of ever more expensive and profitable Earth materials; and the volatility of commodity prices, make a new approach not only ethical, but a financial imperative for companies too.

The linear model of ‘take-make-dispose’, is not sustainable on a finite planet. Designing for recyclability is critical – we must close the loop. This essential transition is already beginning to happen. Production strategies – ranging from extended producer responsibility to ‘closed-loop’ or ‘circular economies’ – are being pursued by innovative organisations and individuals. These have much to teach us and pave the way forward for future creativity and transition. The aim of this report is to inspire us to take action – wherever we are in the system. Once we can see the true costs behind electronic items, which have become so integrated into our lives, we can re-evaluate their value and make informed choices.