Your technology is getting greener, but is it making a difference?

Whether it’s a new smartphone, speaker, laptop, or even a pair of running shoes, the products we use every day are slowly becoming greener, with companies finding small ways to improve their carbon footprint.

For example, companies are now using recycled materials in their products, sourcing parts from more sustainable options, and even removing chargers, cables, and extra parts from your smartphones and devices. But do these changes contribute to reducing the environmental impact?

We spoke to Josh Lepawsky, a professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, to find out. Lepawsky studies modern waste geographies, studying e-waste from discarded electronic devices.

Complete the circle

When it comes to the use of recycled materials in consumer technology, Lepawsky sees a few reasons. “It can be related to brand reputation and management, but also real concerns about energy and material efficiency,” says Lepawsky.

“It’s important to give companies credit, but also to approach their complaints with a degree of suspicion. One of the main reasons companies tout their use of recycled materials is that there is a clear consumer demand for these products. »

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Whatever the reason a company decides to make this material change, it’s unclear how much of a difference it makes to overall waste and pollution issues. Even with marginal improvements, these can be quickly compensated.

© Bloomberg Creative

“There is a phenomenon known as Jevon’s paradox where, as machines become more efficient, resource consumption increases rather than decreases. This is because it becomes less expensive to run a machine, allowing the company to run them for longer,” says Lepawsky.

Although this theory is based on machines that used coal, the theory continues today. There may be a temporary improvement in reducing the amount of energy going through a system, but these gains are always temporary as demand absorbs all gains.

For these companies to improve their energy efficiency and their effect on the environment would require a complete change in their activity. “Companies need to find ways to reduce the throughput of energy and materials over longer and longer periods of time. This requirement is in contradiction with a model based on growth.

Around the world, but especially in Europe, there is a growing discussion about the circular economy in technology, keeping parts in the cycle for as long as possible, and recycling parts into the production process.

“We are talking about materials that come out as products that come back into the manufacturing process. But if the circular economy develops, even more energy and materials circulate in the system, even if they return to the manufacturing process. »

Some companies, however, have pledged to be more environmentally friendly with their materials. The Fairphone telephone company has received awards and certifications on durability and repairability, and achieved the Fairtrade Gold Standard for sustainable use of materials.

Other companies like Dell, Samsung and Apple are also moving in the right direction, reducing packaging and reusing materials to reduce waste. While it’s impossible to know if it’s for the good of the company or the environmental impacts, “it doesn’t matter the intent. It is important to look at the effects.

The role of the consumer

© José A. Bernat Bacete

© José A. Bernat Bacete

In the past, fixing a device meant taking it to a store or shipping it to be sorted at a high cost. However, recently there has been a push, particularly in Europe, for a concept known as the right to repair.

This concept pushes users to freely repair products in case of damage or mechanical problems. Some companies like Apple and Samsung will now even send out kits to help users with this process. While this is a significant shift in process, Lepawsky cautions against relying on it.

“It is important to look at the balance of power between a brand and the consumer. The brand holds most of the power with its global supply chains, but we are all part of the equation,” says Lepawsky.

“However, although the right to repair can be an important reduction in damages, it is a mistake to rely on it. Most of the pollution happened before the user even received a device. The magnitude of the difference between a consumer extending the life of a product and the damage already done does not match. »

The future of e-waste

The need to strengthen the use of recycled materials and complement the circular economy in technology increases every year. Humans generated 57.4 million tons of e-waste in 2021 alone, weighing more than the entire Great Wall of China.

This, coupled with global shortages, has strained the cost and ability to obtain the materials needed to manufacture our everyday technology products.

However, Lepawsky explains that it’s important not to focus too much on the end result, but rather on the pre-consumption stage.

“When you focus on e-waste at the end of the picture, it blocks out what I think is far more important, and that’s the rise of mining and manufacturing. These cause far more problems for the environment than consumers disposing of their smartphones.

About our expert, Josh Lepawsky

Josh is a professor in the Department of Geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He studies modern waste and electronic waste traffic.

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