Digital Industry Eco-Facts: Not the Magic Pill We Hoped For

by Gale Grimmenga, principal, Creative Impulse ( I don’t fault the electronics industry for marketing well—it’s what business is all about, promising a cure or at least an improvement of a problem. Marketing promotes the bright side, the strengths, the good stuff. It implies delivery of something better than the other guy. Every industry turns the conversation to its favor and, at best, educates us about the new innovation’s benefits. At worst, we jump onboard the trend, help promote the promise, and stay ignorant of the truth. As a citizen of Earth, I want an eco-magic pill for our polluting woes. I want to believe the positive claims of the e-industry: Paperless is nirvana; digital communication is promoter of freedom and democracy around the world. Our optimism is great, but it does not always seek or read the evidence clearly. Skepticism edges towards disproving rather than proving, and pessimism is rather apathetic about anything that might work. Removing marketing propaganda, emotions, and self-interest from the eco-fact finding mission should deliver a balanced view, an evidence based perspective—aka the reality. And here it is: No matter what we’ve ever invented in this world, there has been a big downside to the big upside. So what are the eco-facts? We know the paper industry pollutes. Deforestation and manufacturing methods pollute rivers, and printing inks are toxic. But the industry has been turning this around for some time. Not only with recycled paper, sustainable forestry, and soy-based inks, but also with cleaner manufacturing methods. There are some non-recycled paper manufacturers that pollute less than recycled methods. What about the e-world? Where do all those old computers, smart phones, cell phones, and obsolete electronics go to die? Not to the e-clouds, but to our landfills. For every new computer built, an old one becomes obsolete. So, 150 million computers are enough to fill a one-acre hole, 3.5 miles deep, according to the National Engineers Week Foundation. The total number of personal computers in the world is around 2 billion. If 60 percent of these PCs are left powered on, the resulting quantity of CO2 emitted per year is 125 million tons. That’s the equivalent number of 48.1 million automobiles, reported the Worldwatch Institute. Plus, computer components contain toxic substances such as lead, dioxins, PCBs, cadmium chromium, radioactive isotopes, and mercury that leach into soil and groundwater and, via incineration, into our air. And of the 3.2 million tons of electronic waste trashed annually, only 500,000 pounds are recycled (source: Really, everything pollutes. Things just get dirty. The e-industry is no exception; its eco-honeymoon period is over. And like all business, which of course seeks to constantly progress, and build a new widget— this industry throws away its old widgets like yesterday’s newspaper. (Hey, IBM used to pay college kids to smash old typewriter models with sledge hammers in the ‘70s.) There’s no magic pill yet. P.S. I caught a bit of an NPR interview last month where a Middle East expert balanced the over-inflated reputation of digital media as social/culture transformer. It turns out that behind the scenes were newspapers, print of all kinds, word-of-mouth, and people of all ages. The celebrity of the media outperforms the reality. The magic pill would seem to be a diverse cocktail—all media working together for good. Editor’s Note: Grimmenga has had an avid interest in solar energy since her own college days and helped to form a non-profit environmental group in the 1990s, serving as a board member for many years.