We face troubling signs of the ongoing climate crisis on a near-daily basis. Confronted by the omnipresent symptoms of a damaged planet, it can be challenging to see what steps we can take to help avert this pending disaster. And this is a particular issue for those invested in the potential of the tech industry, whose contribution to damaging the environment is increasingly well-known – and, unfortunately, increasingly pronounced.
In this post, we will take a close look at an often-overlooked way in which digital technologies contribute to damaging the environment – the ever-growing challenge of disposing of electronic waste, or “e-waste” for short. In doing so, we’ll examine how e-waste is not an inherent problem of digital technology but rather tied to consumer habits driven by big tech companies. Finally, we’ll look at some emerging solutions to this problem, including one that leverages the innovations of blockchain technology to help build a digital circular economy.
The costs of planned obsolescence
With the phrase “big tech” now part of our everyday language, it is easy to overlook its straightforward, literal meaning. As a recent New York Times report took pains to remind us, the companies gathered under this name are really, really big. For instance, Apple’s profit in 2021 exceeded the combined yearly profits of Walmart, General Motors, Exxon, Pfizer, Verizon, Disney, Coca Cola, and McDonald’s. As of mid-2021, the stock market value of the big five tech companies (Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Facebook) was greater than that of the next 27 most valuable US companies put together.
The monetary values involved are difficult to comprehend. And the challenge continues when we consider the similarly astronomical cash reserves big tech companies are holding. As of February 2022, Amazon had $86.2bn cash on hand, while Google’s owner Alphabet had $169.2bn. Microsoft, meanwhile, had sufficient reserves to make its recent $70bn purchase of gaming company Activision Blizzard in cash. All are dwarfed by Apple, which holds roughly $202bn in cash and liquid securities.
These figures put the big tech companies into a stratosphere of their own – but Apple stands out even amongst these lofty heights of financial excess. And this is not just because, by virtually every metric, they outpace even their rivals in the big five; it’s also due to the source of their revenue. While their rivals make much of their money from leveraging data gathered from users – using this to sell targeted advertising, for instance – Apple relies almost exclusively on selling consumer electronics. As of Q3 2021, Apple made 79% of its total revenue from its products, with the iPhone alone contributing almost half of this total.
This unparalleled success has a range of sources – Apple’s relentless emphasis on sleek, cutting-edge design and elegant, user-friendly software, for instance. But while the company’s commitment to innovation and style is rightly lauded, there are other elements of its success that should give cause for concern, especially for those worried about sustainability.
A core feature of Apple’s business model is planned obsolescence. A combination of constantly updated and iterated models, limited repairability, and the gradual withdrawal of support for older devices effectively push users to update to a newer version of a given device regularly. And this is true of products across the Apple ecosystem, from iPhones and iPads to Macs and Apple Watches. In an earnings call early last year, Apple CEO Tim Cook noted that Apple’s ecosystem had 1.65bn active devices. This is a number that is unimaginable without this constant pressure for consumers to upgrade and replace devices that are often still perfectly usable.
As a result, Apple’s runaway success is built on an ever-growing mountain of unused or discarded phones, tablets, laptops, headphones, and wearables. These electronics require a range of environmentally damaging processes to bring them into existence and raise significant disposal challenges.
The precious metals hidden in your smartphone
Perhaps due to their ubiquity, their often smooth and unobtrusive design, and their association with the immateriality of the digital world, it can be hard to see smartphones, tablets, and computers for what they are. That is, it’s easy to overlook their status as manufactured products reliant on both complex technological processes and a broad range of raw materials. And like any other manufactured object, digital devices involve a significant environmental cost.
While the assembly and shipping of smartphones and similar devices have their impact, the highest environmental cost – and the most easily overlooked – comes from the various rare and valuable metals needed to produce them. Lithium is perhaps the most well-known of these essential components, but the average smartphone also requires copper, tin, tungsten, cobalt, manganese, silver, and gold. None of these can be sourced in bulk without high environmental costs. If we consider that there are, by recent estimates, some five billion worldwide smartphone users, then the sheer scale of the problem becomes apparent.
Each of these various metals offers unique problems for manufacturers seeking a constant supply. Lithium mining, for instance, harms the soil, as well as potentially contaminates local water supplies. Dredging for tin off the coast of Indonesia has damaged coral reefs, devastating the fishing industry in the region, while the ecologically vital mangrove forests are under threat. And extraction of rare earth elements – now often referred to as “technology metals” – leaves behind huge quantities of toxic waste.
Of course, smartphones are not alone in requiring these materials. The shift toward sustainable tech in other industries relies on many of the same components as smartphones, including lithium-based batteries. As a result, the near-constant consumer demand for the latest device not only exacerbates the environmental problems of mineral extraction but also raises the cost of eco-friendly solutions.
The crisis of disposability
While Apple is by no means exclusively to blame for the devastating environmental impact of digital devices, it is emblematic of the wider problem. The sheer volume of devices they sell and the emphasis on continual upgrades and replacements that they promote are fundamental to the industry’s unsustainability.
And this is even more apparent if we turn to the other end of the product lifecycle. Manufacturing smartphones is an environmental headache – but what about once we’re done with them? As of 2018, the average lifecycle for a smartphone was just over two years in Britain and the US and under two years in China. While tablets and laptops tend to last a little longer, they too make their way at an astonishing rate into the steadily accumulating piles of e-waste.
The world’s e-waste problem is already significant. According to the World Economic Forum, 2021 was expected to generate 57.5m tonnes of electronic waste. This is a number so large it tends to generate only blank stares until a suitable comparison is offered. To put things in perspective, this is heavier than the Great Wall of China. But this is just the beginning. The Global E-waste Monitor report for 2020 predicted that by 2030, the quantity will have increased to 74.7m tonnes. That’s 9kg of e-waste for every single person on earth.
The consequences of this sheer mass of waste are difficult to overstate. If dumped in landfills, e-waste can leach toxic substances into the soil and water. What is more, it results in the rare metals – mined at such a great environmental expense – being left to moulder among the garbage. Given that, as a BBC report states, a tonne of iPhones would contain 300 times more gold than a tonne of gold ore, this is a truly astonishing waste.
But obvious solutions such as recycling are more complex than they first seem. For example, only a tiny proportion of e-waste is currently recycled (around 17%, according to the Global E-waste Monitor). Separating the various components of discarded e-waste is a difficult, labour-intensive process. So while Apple has touted its AI-driven recycling robots, it has been notably coy about how many devices it has recycled this way.
Far more common is the reliance on manual workers to physically sort through the waste. Given the risks involved in this type of labour, it should be unsurprising that wealthier nations have largely exported the problem. For example, Guiyu, in south-eastern China, is the largest e-waste site in the world – and, as Time magazine reports, has “the highest level of cancer-causing dioxins in the world and an elevated rate of miscarriage.”
Ultimately, while safer and more widespread recycling practices may be helpful, they don’t strike at the core of the problem. Recycling is, at best, a way to minimise the damage caused by the enormous quantities of e-waste that wealthier nations are producing. A more sustainable solution would be to reduce the amount of waste produced in the first place. But how can this be achieved?
The potential of a digital circular economy
As we discussed above, companies like Apple are emblematic of the e-waste problem through their highly effective combination of continuous, incremental upgrades and planned obsolescence. To tackle the e-waste issue at its root, we need to consider how the sheer disposability of electronic goods can be challenged – whether that’s smartphones and tablets or gaming consoles and PCs.
There are various solutions currently being explored for reducing the number of devices that are simply discarded, often after a period of sitting unused and forgotten in an out-of-the-way place. These solutions can all be gathered under the name of the “circular economy”. This concept, which has grown in popularity in recent years, focuses on reusing, sharing, or repurposing goods rather than simply discarding them.
In the context of electronic goods, the circular economy principle is visible in recent legal battles over the “right to repair”. The focus of campaigns in this area is to secure a legal requirement for electronic devices to be easy and affordable to fix if parts are damaged or worn out. These are steps that companies such as Apple have often actively opposed, even going so far as to glue the batteries into Macbook Pros to make them almost impossible to replace without professional help.
A legal right to repair could significantly impact the e-waste problem by limiting the rate at which devices are discarded. At the very least, it could put an end to the unsustainable situation in which devices are cheaper and easier to replace than to fix when they inevitably break.
But there are other potentially revolutionary solutions to the e-waste crisis in the offing. The massive growth of blockchain technology over the past two years has not just transformed the gaming and art worlds – it’s also opened up the potential for the decentralised sharing of computing resources. By allowing individuals to easily monetise the idle computing power from older or rarely used devices, we can help to push back the growing tide of e-waste.
Decentralised cloud computing as a solution to e-waste
Core to the promise of blockchain technology is the facilitation of peer-to-peer transactions at scale without the need for a central authority. The potential implications of this innovation are extraordinary. Indeed, they have already begun to resonate across a wide range of industries, disrupting the financial and sports sectors as much as arts and culture.
Cudo Compute aims to extend this transformative impact of blockchain to the cloud computing market – and help fight the scourge of e-waste at the same time. Using the Cudos network to link those seeking computing power with those who have spare capacity, we can allow even the smallest devices, from phones to gaming consoles and PCs, to be fully utilised.
By encouraging users to lease the computing power of their underused devices and generate passive income in the process, Cudo Compute will tip the balance away from simply discarding and replacing devices near the end of their lifecycle. But that’s not its only environmental benefit. As we’ve discussed before, the current market for cloud computing is dominated by a small number of centralised providers. The environmental cost of the data centres such providers rely on is enormous – and continuing to grow. In addition, Amazon plans to build a range of new hyper-scale data centres worldwide to support its market-leading AWS operations, including a commitment to spend $7.5bn on data centres in Auckland.
While these data centres help companies like Amazon and Microsoft maintain their stranglehold over the cloud computing market by providing economies of scale, they are incredibly inefficient. To allow for rapid scalability at times of surging demand and other bottlenecks of using a centralised system for requesting and allocating computing resources, it is impossible to accurately map available computing power to demand. The result: unnecessary energy usage and avoidable carbon emissions.
By allowing for the efficient and decentralised crowdsourcing of computing resources, Cudo Compute supports the emergence of a circular economy in the tech industry and reduces energy waste in the cloud computing market. With concerns over the climate crisis continuing to grow, it’s time for bold steps toward sustainability – and this is just what Cudos is offering.
How can you help to support our sustainable compute network?
As with any decentralised solution, the Cudos network – and Cudo Compute in particular – requires collective action to make it a reality. If you’re looking to make a difference, why not help to support our testing process? You can help us to test your hardware compatibility and ensure the smoothest possible launch for the Cudo Compute project – and you’ll receive free computational resources for your efforts!
If you’d like to buy or sell compute in a decentralised and sustainable way, register your interest today. Together, we can make cloud computing part of the solution to the climate crisis.
About Cudo Compute
Cudo Compute is a fairer cloud computing platform for everyone. It provides access to distributed resources by leveraging underutilised computing globally on idle data centre hardware. It allows users to deploy virtual machines on the world’s first democratised cloud platform, finding the optimal resources in the ideal location at the best price.
Cudo Compute aims to democratise the public cloud by delivering a more sustainable economic, environmental, and societal model for computing by empowering businesses and individuals to monetise unused resources.
Our platform allows organisations and developers to deploy, run and scale based on demands without the constraints of centralised cloud environments. As a result, we realise significant availability, proximity and cost benefits for customers by simplifying their access to a broader pool of high-powered computing and distributed resources at the edge.
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