- Our consumption of electronics is increasing. New products are constantly reappearing on the market and the old ones are gradually getting outdated.
- Throughout their lifecycle electronics have an impact on both the environment and people who are working within the industry: starting from the extraction of raw materials and the manufacturing of electronic products up to their utilization and disposal.
What is in our electronic devices?
Electronic devices are produced from different raw materials, which provide different and specific electrophysical properties such as insulation and electrical conductivity. These raw materials are:
- Metals, such as steel, iron and aluminum, but also copper, silver, gold, tin, tungsten and gallium. Metals can account for up to 50% of the product’s weight.
- Plastics, which is used as insulation and design of the product. It can account for up to 20% of the weight of the product.
- Rare-earth metals, which is a group of the elements lanthanides, scandium and yttrium (a total of 17 substances). They are used in small quantities.
- Minerals and non-metallic materials, such as silicon and silicone, but also cobalt, carbon, antimony, fluorite, garnet and magnesium.
- Hazardous substances, such as heavy metals (mercury, lead, chromium, cadmium), phthalates and brominated flame retardants.
These substances are carcinogenic, neurotoxic, endocrine disrupting and harmful to reproduction.
Extraction of metals
- Metals such as tin, tungsten, tantalum, gallium, indium and ruthenium, copper, gold, platinum and beryllium are extracted from mines. The mining industry is usually concentrated in developing countries where poverty is a widespread phenomenon. The population often has no access to either education or health care.
- Child labor in the mines is common. Children are used as they are smaller than adults and thus are more suitable for getting into narrow shafts.
- The work is usually carried out without protective equipment and the workers are exposed to mineral dust, which causes lung diseases and eye irritation.
- Emissions from the mines lead to polluted watercourses. There is a clear link between the emissions from smelting plants and high levels of lead discovered in the blood samples of children in Zambia.
- In Ghana, which is the world’s second largest gold producer, gold mining leads to deforestation. The extraction of 1 gram of gold generates between 1 and 5 tonnes of mining waste. In order to make space available for gold mining, the local population is forced to be displaced and their land for farming is lost.
- In Congo-Kinshasa, the extraction of tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold also intensifies conflicts between the army and rebel groups in the country.
- Electronic Companies are usually outsourcing the manufacturing to low income countries, mainly in Asia, and often move certain operations from one country to another to reduce costs.
- In countries such as China and the Philippines, workers often receive only the local legal minimum wage, which is so low that it is not enough to satisfy the basic needs of a normal-sized family. To be able to support themselves, the workers have to do a lot of overtime.
- It is common for production to take place without protective equipment. This is problematic as many dangerous chemicals are used in the manufacturing process, which lead to serious health problems among workers.
- Electronics industry puts a lot of effort into avoiding Trade unions regulations and often relocates production to special export zones, also known as “union- and strike-free zones”. Legislation in these zones is looser than in the rest of the world. The majority of workers are women who are generally preferred to men because they are considered less likely to claim their rights.
- The supply chain in the electronics industry is long. The bottom of it usually has no transparency and is characterized by the worst working conditions and the absence of environmental controls.
- The process of manufacturing electronics requires a lot of energy, but the use stage is also crucial. For example the entire world’s IT use has an equivalent climate impact to the world’s aviation industry.
- To reduce energy consumption, you can choose electronics with energy labels such as Energy Star and TCO. It is also important to make sure to turn off your devices properly and not use standby mode.
- Some hazardous substances found in electronics, such as phthalates and brominated flame retardants, can be excreted from the product and end up in the air and dust in our homes. The amounts of substances that come out into the air and enter our respiratory systems are relatively small. Still, it is important to ventilate the home properly and clean often to keep the dust away.
Disposal and export to developing countries.
- The amount of e-waste that was produced globally in 2019 reached 53.6 million tonnes. On average it is estimated that less than 40 percent of all electrical and electronic products are collected for recycling within the EU. The remaining 60-75 percent are unsorted.
- Some of this waste is exported to developing countries in, for example, Asia and Africa, despite the fact that the export of e-waste to developing countries is banned by the EU legislation. The exports take place under the pretext that electronic products are still functional, but most of the time the exports are illegal.
- The waste often contains many hazardous substances that are harmful for human health and the environment if not handled properly. Developing countries that receive e-waste often lack functioning waste management systems. As a result, the waste ends up in landfills and causes intractable environmental and health problems.
- The world’s largest dump for e-waste is located in Ghana’s capital Accra in a slum area called Agbogbloshie. The size of the area is equivalent to 11 football fields and that is where electronics from Europe and the USA arrive at the end of their life cycle. Thousands of people, both adults and children, live and work in Agbogbloshie. They disassemble the appliances, burn cables and circuit boards to extract copper, which they then sell to buyers at the trash depot.
- When e-waste is incinerated outdoors, heavy metals are released uncontrollably. The smoke is extremely toxic to those who are exposed to it. It causes breathing problems, coughing and headaches and in long term leads to cancer, DNA damage, miscarriage and infertility.
Tips for sustainable consumption of electronics
- Use the appliances you have for as long as possible: update and supplement instead of buying new.
- Repair instead of buying a new one: by fixing a cracked screen and changing the battery, you will do a great service to both the environment and people.
- Take care of what you have and prevent the damage: have protection for your mobile phone and put a piece of electrical tape on the parts of the charging cables and headphones that are most likely to be damaged.
- Reuse appliances you no longer need: give them to a friend or sell them.
- Buy used electronic products instead of brand new ones. There are many websites that sell electronic devices second hand.
- Buy electronic devices that have an official eco-label and CE mark. The CE mark means a guarantee from a manufacturer that the device meets EU safety requirements.
- Always hand in all used electronics for recycling, either at the municipality’s recycling center or at the nearest outlet.
- Put pressure on companies and demand products that are produced with respect for the environment and human rights.
- Voices from Eastern Congo (2010). A report from Swedwatch within the makeITfair project about the connection between mineral extraction and conflicts in Eastern Congo. Download a summary in Swedish or the entire report in English here.
- Out of control- E-waste trade flows from the EU to developing countries (2009). A report from Swedwatch within the makeITfair project on the export of e-waste from the EU. Download a summary in Swedish here or the entire report in English here.
- Silenced to deliver- Mobile phone manufacturing in China and Philippines (2008). A report from Swedwatch within the makeITfair project on the manufacturing of mobile phones in China and the Philippines.
- Behind our mobile world- Cobalt production for rechargeable batteries in Congo-Kinshasa and Zambia (2007). A report from Swedwatch within the makeITfair project which describes the problems with the mining industry in the so-called copper belt in Zambia and Congo-Kinshasa.
DANWATCH Danish non-profit media and research center that works with journalism concerning business ethics and examines the export of e-waste.
FAIR ACTION A non-profit association that works for fair trade and monitors Swedish companies’ trade with low-income countries. Has, among other things, reported on working conditions in the electronics industry.
THE LATIN AMERICA GROUPS A solidarity association that, together with Latin American popular movements, works for a just and sustainable society. Has different theme areas, including mining.
MAKEITFAIR A European project consisting of several organizations from different countries that focus on the conditions in the electronics industry.
SWEDWATCH An organization that examines Swedish companies in low-wage countries, with the goal of contributing to sustainable global development.
GREENPEACE Has since 2006 presented Guide to Greener Electronics where you as a consumer can get help to choose a greener alternative when you buy new electronics.
GREENER IT! Leaflet no 4 (2009). An information folder from makeITfair about electronic waste.
COMPUTER CONNECTIONS Supply chain policies and practices of seven computer companies (2009). A report from Dutch SOMO that reviews seven companies’ codes of conduct.
COMPUTER ENERGY USE Article on the Swedish Energy Agency’s website
WHAT A WASTE How your computer causes health problems in Ghana (2011). A report from DanWatch within the makeITfair project on the consequences of e-waste for human health in Ghana.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS ABOUT THE NEW ENERGY LABEL The Swedish Energy Agency’s website, 2020-04-27
PLATT-TV REKORD MED KLIMATVÄRSTING Article from Klotet in P1, 2010-05-26
CANCERFRAMKALLANDE ÄMNEN I PLATTEVEN Article from Klotet in P1, 2010-05-26
High price for cheap mobile – a study of four mobile operators (2009). A report from Fair Action (formerly Fair Trade Center) within the MAKE IT FAIR project on the responsibility of mobile operators for the environment and ethics.
E-WASTE AND RAW MATERIAL: From Environmental Issues to Business Models (2019). A report from IVL Swedish Environmental Institute within the EU project E-mining@schools which describes what e-waste is, what e-waste consists of and what environmental problems are linked to it.
THE GLOBAL E-WASTE MONITOR 2020 (2020). A report (in English) that delves into the e-waste problem.
ELECTRICAL MATERIALS The Swedish Chemicals Agency