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The pool at the bottom of the Lavender Pit pit is the color of rust, burnt red and bleeding. The pit is part of the inactive Copper Queen mining complex in Bisbee, Arizona. On the crater’s rim is a commemorative plaque that asks, “Why dig the pit?” Because, the plaque goes on to answer, “every electronic gizmo from refrigerators to iPods needs copper wiring.”
The Lavender Pit opened in the 1950s, the midpoint of a century scientists call the Great Acceleration for the huge — and swift — impact that modern human life had on the planet. The period was marked by changes in how natural resources were extracted and used, especially for new technologies. These changes can be pinpointed in time by the emergence of technofossils, artifacts composed of materials that occur rarely or not at all in the absence of technological and scientific intervention. Think purified forms of iron, aluminum, and titanium; artificially isolated forms of metals like neodymium; or synthetic glasses and plastics. All these materials and more go into the making of today’s digital devices.
You can imagine your old television or even the smartphone you’re reading this on becoming the technofossils of tomorrow. But everything digital devices are made from and that enables them to operate was, at some point, extracted from the earth. In a real sense, technofossils aren’t something our devices are waiting to become at some distant point in the geological future. Our devices are made of fossils now.
Extracting those fossils, constructing our gadgets, and, eventually, discarding them is a destructive cycle that only stands to get worse in the coming decades as demand for electronics grows around the world. It is a crisis that can no longer be ignored.
Today, we generate around 55 million tons of discarded electronics every year. Try to imagine 5 million elephants or 110 Burj Khalifas piled on top of each other and you’ve got the rough idea. That number is expected to grow by 3 to 5 percent annually, as reported in the 2017 Global E-Waste Monitor. Assuming 3 percent growth, our e-waste generation will double in a little more than 23 years. At 5 percent, the doubling time declines to about 14 years.
If estimates are correct, people will be discarding about 110 million tons of electronics sometime between the years 2033 and 2042. Things would look considerably more dramatic by 2069 if current trends continue.
Troubling though the numbers may be, they include none of the waste that arises in the mining, making, or using of those electronics. And there is plenty.
Strip the earth. Get the metal.
In fact, the waste from discarding gadgets is dwarfed by the waste created from mining the materials to make them in the first place. Over the operational life of the Lavender Pit, for example, about 600,000 tons of copper were extracted from the ground. (Your iPhone contains a little less than eight grams of copper. Apple reportedly sold more than 217 million iPhones last year, theoretically requiring some 1,900 tons of copper.)
Getting that much metal from the Lavender Pit also meant generating 256 million tons of waste. That’s about 426 tons of waste for every ton of desirable metal produced from the pit. It’s what miners call a strip ratio. Strip the earth. Get the metal.
Today’s electronics are complex amalgams of plastics, metals, and glass. These materials do not, of course, spring forth from the earth ready to be assembled into chips, screens, phones, or servers.
Plastics, for example, are petroleum products. Canada’s oil sands are a global powerhouse in petroleum products: In 2012, the country’s national statistics agency reported that around 710 million tons of waste was generated from oil sands production. Of course, only some small portion of total oil sands production eventually becomes plastics that might be used to make electronics, but the scale of waste arising from resource extraction begins to put postconsumer e-waste in a different perspective.
Making electronics is an energy- and materials-intensive endeavor. When Seagate, a major data storage device manufacturer, conducted an internal audit of the chemical footprint of its manufacturing, the company found that “the volume of chemicals not incorporated into the products is conservatively estimated to be four times that of product chemistries.” In other words, the amount of chemicals required to make the devices is quadruple the amount of chemicals in the devices themselves.
Seagate’s situation is hardly unique. Many brand manufacturers regularly publish data about the carbon footprints of their devices. Over and over, these companies’ own data show that emissions arising in production usually outweigh those arising from transportation (that is, distribution from factory to consumer), product use, or end-of-life management (or recycling).
Any digital device with a screen involves the use of an especially potent class of greenhouse gasses called fluorinated greenhouse gases (F-GHGs), which are used to etch the thin-film components of flat screens typical of today’s TVs, phones, tablets, and monitors. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s emerging studies of F-GHGs in electronics manufacturing suggest that the use of these gases may be on track to double by next year. If that trend were to continue, F-GHG releases from flat-screen production could double 10 to 16 times over in 50 years.
The Silicon Valley region has more federal Superfund sites than any county in the United States.
That’s almost certainly impossible, which is, in a sense, the whole point. Such doubling would be roughly equivalent to today’s total CO2 emissions from the United States. And so the industry, facing a literally unsustainable manufacturing process, must confront a stark necessity to innovate.
F-GHGs are not incorporated into the digital devices they are used to make. Instead, they are released into the atmosphere. They are odorless, tasteless, and invisible, but once in the atmosphere, F-GHGs have a global warming potential thousands of times higher than CO2. They also remain in the atmosphere for centuries to millennia. Manufacturers have committed to being more efficient in the use of F-GHGs, but efficiency gains are no guarantee of overall reductions if demand increases.
Even as production networks for electronics have been globalized, manufacturing of computers, electronics, and their components still happens in the United States—as do releases of toxic chemicals from their manufacture. The Silicon Valley region has more federal Superfund sites than any county in the United States. Nevertheless, the electronics industry still manages to trade on images that are the opposite of heavy industry (think: “the cloud”).
Parts of Silicon Valley today sit atop a toxic soup of discards from electronics left behind from historical manufacturing in the region. One of those sites is the Middlefield-Ellis-Whisman (MEW) Study Area. The MEW is a legacy of groundwater contaminated by leaking underground chemical storage tanks at facilities once owned by Silicon Valley founders Fairchild, Raytheon, and Intel. A consultant’s report found that it will take 700 years for the MEW to be cleansed of chemicals to the point where the water would meet EPA drinking standards.
Some of Google’s facilities sit on top of the MEW today. Among the chemicals percolating through the site out of the ground and into the air is trichloroethylene, a chemical compound the EPA has found to be “carcinogenic in humans by all routes of exposure.”
The “cloud” is a metaphor that misleads. The infrastructure on which our clicks run, the server farms where our data are stored, all need a lot of energy. That energy has to be generated one way or another, and how it’s created matters a lot for the tonnage and toxicity of emissions and other wastes produced as a result. Today’s data centers consume about 1 to 1.5 percent of total electricity generated globally. But rates of growth are estimated to be between 11 and 16 percent annually. If those rates remain constant, power consumption by data centers will double at least seven times over between now and 2069. With those doublings will come a wake of discarded electronics, highly variable in their tonnage, toxicity, and harms to the people, places, and things they encounter.
There are some dangerous temptations built into imagining today’s TVs as tomorrow’s technofossils. One of those dangers is mistaking the husks of our digital devices for their effects. Toxicants released in the mining, making, and using of those devices are active agents. They will shape the future well beyond 2069.