The sustainability hopes and threats of IT

While IT clearly offers hopes for a large scale adoption of more sustainable practices in modern societies, the current path of its booming development also raises serious concerns. IT can surely provide sustainable solutions, but the sector must also grow in a more sustainable way.

The hopes

  • Optimizing environmental management processes

With the development of computer power and various software applications, IT has an enormous role to play in improving efficiency and limiting impacts on the environment.

Most notably, IT could play a substantial role in moderating waste, water and energy consumption by helping to both monitor and effectively manage these aspects.

A multitude of new IT products and software applications are emerging to assist businesses and individuals to manage their environmental performance. Such IT tools are starting to appear in new infrastructures, factories and general business management systems. For instance, new software can now assist architects to design more environmentally efficient buildings by optimizing the thermodynamic and air flow patterns of structures during the design phase.

  • Minimizing unnecessary travel

With the development of aviation and the drop in general travel costs came an unprecedented increase in travellers for leisure and, more notably, business. Air transportation accounts for 2 to 3 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

IT audio visual technologies have made remarkable breakthroughs in recent years. With the spread of high definition imagery, new communication platforms through the internet and even the development of 3D technology, there is hope that we are not far from having distant communications that will seem more realistic than ever before.

Improved IT communication could fundamentally change the way societies and businesses operate by replacing often unnecessary or excessive business trips.

Many businessmen feel that human interaction in a face to face meeting would be difficult to replace. But could this be due to the limitation of currently available technology? What if the technology were so good that it was difficult to distinguish a real person from a projection?

The reality is that such technology is not far away and could diminish (but not fully replace) business travel, along with its hefty environmental footprint.

The threats

New applications of IT have a downside. Indeed, the IT hardware present in all our gadgets (phones, computers, tablets) also contain highly toxic components.

Globalization and mass production have significantly dropped the cost of many IT products, especially personal computers and phones, to the point that most people can afford one or more. While it is a significant leap in lifestyle quality, it is also a severe global environmental problem.

  • Treatment

Most of us don’t realise that a standard smartphone commonly contains significant amounts of toxic substances such as lead, mercury, beryllium, arsenic, brominated flame retardants, lead, nickel, palladium, tantalum, cadmium and antimony. Where do all these components end up?

Still today, many of them are not appropriately treated at the end of their life cycle. Often the components, which are toxic when released into the environment, end up in unsafe landfills or are simply incinerated, which results in harmful emissions.  In the United States, an estimated 70 per cent of the heavy metals in landfills come from discarded electronics, although electronic waste represents only 2 per cent the trash there.

Furthermore, in developing countries, e-waste from a multitude of IT products is a significant health risk for local communities. Because many components of IT products are valuable, people use highly unsafe practices to extract metals and components to sell on the market (often the black market).  They melt the parts and separate the valuable metals such as gold and mercury in a process that results in toxic fumes that cause chronic diseases.

Such problems have been known for a long time but are still growing.

  • Extraction of raw materials

On the other side of the life cycle, the skyrocketing demand for all these new electronic gadgets and applications of the IT industry are putting additional pressures on mining. The very concerning environmental impacts associated with mining activities should also be considered if IT is to continue to boom.

Some solutions

A logical solution would be to separately collect any IT waste at the source and systematically send it to specialized e-waste treatment facilities.

In too many countries, e-waste is just considered general waste. Few countries have succeeded in establishing effective e-waste collection options and as a result the treatment efficiency lags.

E-waste clearly requires a specific treatment process that not only assures safety, but also greatly maximizes the recycling potential of the components. Indeed, IT waste requires complex technology and specific stage processes. While some of the components can be directly reused after extraction from the circuits (e.g. resistances, transistors…) others need to be processed and separated (e.g. various precious metals). On average, over 90 per cent of components in IT equipment can be recycled.

More than ever - considering growing IT product sales - the industry needs to put in place proper take-back policies and retreatment processes to ensure that used components do not go to waste and are reintroduced into new IT products.

As Norbert Wiener, the precursor of modern cybernetics once said: “Progress imposes not only new possibilities for the future but new restrictions.”

While IT seems to offer unlimited solutions that could lead to more sustainable societies, a greater emphasis should also be put in the mounting problems caused by the IT industry.

Sylvain Richer de Forges is head of sustainability at Siloso Beach Resort.

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