Enormous, toxic waste in digital design

The manufacturing of our digital products has a huge, toxic impact on the environment. As computer chips become smaller and more complex, their demand for water rises substantially. A typical computer chip making process requires that each wafer has to be rinsed with water more than 30 times. The result is that to make a smartphone can consume up to 14,000 liters of water, and to make a laptop can consume a staggering 190,000. In an age of increasing drought and water scarcity, can we afford to give the digital industry so much of such a precious resource?

“Something that does set digital technologies apart in terms of their energy and material footprints from more traditional manufacturing is that to get the purity of the materials you need to make things like semiconductors requires substantially more energy and material inputs in terms of purifying those materials,” explains Dr. Josh Lepawsky, an expert in digital material use. “One analogy I recall is that if you think about the purity needed for manufacturing a silicon ingot, which is a desk-sized cylinder of metal that is required for making the silicon that goes into semiconductor manufacturing, if you think of TicTacs (little sweet mints that are smaller than a finger nail), you would need to line up those TicTacs from the west coast of the United States to the east coast and only one TicTac in that line could be impure. That’s the level of purity that’s required to make those semiconductors. And to get that type of purity requires massive amounts of energy and resources. So, there are heavy consequences for manufacturing these devices.”

In 2020, we dug, blasted and gouged out of the Earth some 100 billion tons of material. (Mount Everest has a mass of about 150 billion tons.) “It is very normal in the mining sector to talk about 98% and 99% of a given mine’s materials to be considered waste,” Josh explains. “In terms of just the sheer weight, the sheer level of harm, toxicity, most of the waste arising and most of the effects are being felt by people and places and ecologies that are—I’ll use the term—“upstream” of where you and I purchase and use our digital technologies. One of the reasons so much attention is on consumer waste or e-waste is because I think it seems very obvious to us that that’s where the waste happens because you and I have a tangible connection to it. We can see it. We can feel it. But in terms of the overall waste stream, what you and I see is very tiny; in the order of 2% to 10% of overall waste. 90% to 98% of the waste from our electronics happened before you or I even purchased the devices that we’re now using. So, it’s important to turn our view upstream.”

The waste that is associated with the materials needed to manufacture electronics is nearly always toxic. “When the ore body is exposed to the atmosphere and to precipitation, you can get things like acid mine drainage, and that acidified drainage can mobilize other chemicals that are naturally occurring in the ore body, and that can be quite toxic,” Josh explains. “And of course water flows where it will, so it can flow into other systems, agricultural systems, drinking water systems, and so on and so forth. So, the effects can flow well beyond the mine site.”

Josh Lepawsky chats with Gerry McGovern

Podcast: World Wide Waste
Interviews with prominent thinkers outlining what can be done to make digital as sustainable as possible.
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