Water-mad digital devices

Making electronic devices is incredibly water intense. It takes 14,000 liters of water to make a smartphone. It takes 190,000 liters of water to make a laptop. It takes 850 times more water to make one gram of material for a smartphone than one gram of material for an average car. If you keep a smartphone for three years, it’s had to drink 12 liters every day of those three years to cover the water used during its manufacture. We’re not even talking here about the water required for the phone’s access to the Cloud, or for the electricity to keep the phone on. For a laptop that has a five-year life, for every single one of those days, over 100 liters of water will be drunk to cover the manufacturing of that incredibly water-intense device.

About 14.5 billion smartphones were manufactured between 2007 and 2021. That’s around 200 trillion liters of water, enough to fill almost 80 million Olympic-size swimming pools. Why that’s nothing, say the tech evangelists. What about agriculture. How many swimming pools would agriculture fill? You hear the same utterly cynical reasoning coming from the crypto bros. It’s not as bad as this. It’s not as bad as that. Some reasoning! But perfectly reflective of a deep technology culture that has a disdain for materials and energy. The tech industry drank its own Kool-Aid long ago. It believes that it lives in an ethereal Cloud, that everything is free or at least dirt cheap, that what it does is inherently a good thing so it should have no constraints on its behavior.

Between 2006 and 2021 about 4.8 billion laptops and desktops were manufactured. At 190,000 liters of water per computer, that’s over 900 trillion liters of water, or 365 million Olympic-size swimming pools’ worth of water. But who’s counting? Who cares? It’s just water. We are only facing once-in-a-millennium droughts around the world.

Titanium is just one of the multiple materials in our digital devices. In Chiapas, Mexico, where titanium is found, “a small mine consumes around 250,000 liters per hour, while a large one consumes between one and three million liters in that same amount of time,” Martínez García explains. The mines pollute the local Cacaluta river. Fish are dying, animals getting sick. People developing hives, white spots and dryness. Cancers are rising rapidly. It seems that poor people, Nature and the Earth are always footing the bill when it comes to the price of technological progress.

If you keep a smartphone for five years instead of two years, you more than halve its water impact. The same for a laptop. When you’ve got a manufacturing process that is highly energy and resource intensive, it is absolutely essential to use that product for as long as possible. A smartphone should last for at least ten years. A laptop should last for at least twenty years. Even after twenty years, a laptop will still consume 26 liters of water for every day of those twenty years to assuage its manufacturing thirst. Respect Earth’s materials. These smartphones and laptops are amazing things. We are so privileged to have them. But they come at a huge cost to the Earth and its environment. And water is just one of those costs.

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