Small steps by every business and every individual today will make a huge impact on our environmental footprint in the long run. We should all be thinking of cleantech living and doing whatever we can to help reduce our environmental footprint.

Cleantech, short for clean technology, refers to any technology or process that aims to minimize environmental impact and promote sustainable development. It encompasses a wide range of sectors and innovations that focus on reducing carbon emissions, improving energy efficiency, conserving resources, and mitigating climate change.

Digitalization has numerous benefits across various sectors and in our private lives.

Digitalizing processes can greatly increase efficiency and productivity. By automating routine tasks, companies can save time and resources, allowing them to focus on their core competencies.  It can often lead to a decrease in operational costs resultingfrom efficiencies such as a reduced need for physical storage space, less printing and paper usage, or automated workflows that require fewer personnel hours.

Digitalization is also making the world a smaller place.  Digital information can be accessed from anywhere in the world, fostering better collaboration and convenience. It enables remote work, e-learning, telehealth, and many other activities that don’t require physical presence.  What is more, it has revolutionised the way and the speed we communicate. It’s now easy to stay in touch with friends, family, and colleagues around the world through email, instant messaging, video calls, and social media platforms.

But be warned: Digitalization comes with a hidden environmental impact.

For all the benefits mentioned we of course need the digital devices to make them happen, and we also have to store the data somewhere. According to Cybersecurity Ventures, the world will store 200 zettabytes of data by 2025 (one zettabyte is equal to a trillion gigabytes – that’s a 1 with 23 zeroes after it!). This includes data stored on private and public IT infrastructures, on utility infrastructures, on private and public cloud data centres, on personal computing devices – PCs. laptops, tablets, and smartphones – and on IoT devices.

The approximate number of personal computers in use worldwide is 2 billion. Mobile phones approx. 4 billion. And we haven’t yet counted all the game consoles, smart watches, smart home devices, etc.

But all this tech needs to be powered somehow.  And we’re not talking just the power to use the devices but also to manufacture them. We need much more energy to manufacture all these devices than for their operation. This is the hidden environmental impact of digitalization.  The side we rarely think about, but we must consider embodied energy or in other words the total energy required to produce a product. This includes all stages from raw material extraction, manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance, and to its end-of-life disposal or recycling. It is an important measure in assessing the environmental impact of products.

As an example, let’s  look at the lifecycle of a mobile phone.  Its lifecycle involves several stages, each with its own environmental impact:

  • The first stage – material extraction – where raw materials for the phone are extracted from the earth. This includes metals (like gold, silver, copper, palladium, and lithium), petroleum (for plastic), and rare earth elements. Extraction often involves mining, which can cause environmental damage and pollution.  The extracted materials are then processed and manufactured into components like circuit boards, screens, batteries, and casings. This stage uses a significant amount of energy, much of it from non-renewable sources. It also often involves the use of hazardous chemicals.
  • Next, the components are assembled into the final product. This stage also consumes energy, particularly if the components are produced in different countries and need to be shipped to the place of phone construction.  Afterwards, the finished phones are packaged, shipped to retailers or directly to consumers around the world. The transportation process results in greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The consumer uses the phone, which involves energy consumption for charging the battery and using data services. Software updates can extend the useful life of the phone. However, many phones are replaced after just a few years, even though they are still functional, leading to waste.
  • Eventually, the phone is discarded. Some phones are collected for recycling, while others end up in landfill. E-waste can be a source of pollution, particularly if it is not managed properly. If phones are recycled, some of the materials can be recovered and used to manufacture new products, reducing the need for new material extraction.

What are we doing about embodied energy and its environmental impact?

There are efforts within the electronics industry to improve energy efficiency and reduce the environmental impact of device production. This includes optimising manufacturing processes, adopting cleaner energy sources, implementing waste reduction strategies, and promoting recycling and responsible disposal of electronic waste.

But we need to be asking ourselves do we really need a new mobile phone every year? Or a laptop or all the new gadgets? What is our environmental footprint and how can we reduce it?

  • We should all be making our digital devices last as long as we possibly can.  Companies like iFixit have an array of repair manuals for different electronic devices and they sell the kits and tools needed to conduct the repair yourself.  Likewise, Apple has been running its Self-Service Repair initiative for over a year which makes parts and tools available for some Apple devices so customers can fix them themselves.
  • If you do need to replace your electronic device, then consider donating full functioning devices to charity or research how to recycle them properly to create as little impact on the environment as possible.  Most recycling centres now have e-waste recycling points where large and small electronic items can be recycled.
  • Businesses and individuals should all also power down devices when they’re not in use.  Just by simply turning down the brightness on your screen you can save electricity.  Unplugging desktop computers, TVs, and chargers when not in use can also save electricity.
  • Give your storage cloud a spring clean!  We can all save energy by deleting old files that we don’t need both at work and at home.  We can store things locally on our devices or on an external hard drive to reduce the amount of data being stored in the huge data farms across the world.

Anita Molitor

Operation Executive

T +43 664 962 40 08

Related Insights