It’s impossible to talk about Earth Day without talking about technology. After all, scientific progress was the force behind the industrial revolution that triggered the environmental concerns we now face. The consumer tech market only exacerbates this problem, with its reliance on plastics and toxic heavy metals.
Looking back at the 20th century, however, one might be comforted by numerous examples of innovation triumphing over pollution. This Earth Day, we thought it appropriate to discuss some of the most harmful pollutants produced by the consumer technology industry, and to illustrate the various solutions that are either already available, or may become available in the near future.
The Bad News
When Monsanto created its all-plastic house at Disney’s Tomorrowland in 1957, the chemical corporation saw the home as a vision of the no-too-distant future: the 1980s. While decades of public and private investment in plastics would follow, the plastic home would not. What these early adopters failed to acknowledge was the immeasurable harm that plastics cause to the environment.
Obviously, plastic is a major component in most consumer tech products. It does not biodegrade easily, yet when it finally does break down, it releases a host of toxic chemicals that can impact personal health and ecosystems at large. The most worrisome byproduct, bisphenol-A or BPA, comes from polycarbonate plastics, which are frequently used in mobile phone and laptop casings (not to mention DVDs, water bottles, car parts, and much more).
Many governments have begun banning or regulating the production of BPA-containing plastics, but all plastics pose environmental problems, and worldwide demand for plastic remains high. It’s unlikely that plastic manufacturing will slow down in the near future. And plastic recycling rates are low, hovering around 8 percent overall in 2010, according to the EPA.
The Good News
The widespread adoption of mobile devices in recent years has driven up demand for polycarbonate plastics. In response to the toxic nature of this material, manufacturers have tried to develop more sustainable phones. In 2009, Samsung released the Reclaim, made from entirely biodegradable materials. More recently, they launched the Galaxy Exhilarate, which is made from 80 percent post-consumer waste.
Researchers have discovered several kinds of fungi that are able to safely break down BPA-containing plastics with the help of ultraviolet light. And some producers have invested in alternative materials, like liquid wood (derived from wood pulp), milk protein, polyester fabrics, and non-petroleum plastics made from corn, soy, or wheat.
The Holy Grail of electronics sustainability would be a device that self-destructs, dissolves, or “dies” on its own. It sounds fanciful, but the technology is very real. Scientists have already developed integrated circuit boards that can disintegrate in water. The field is called transient electronics, and is being fueled by both private and public research.
Polypropylene is a common polymer with minimal environmental hazard. It’s degradable when exposed to heat and UV radiation, so its usage in home appliances, aircraft, furniture and clothing is not widely opposed. It’s even promoted as a viable alternative to polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is highly toxic.
The Bad News
Mercury is a liquid metal that exists naturally in the environment but is incredibly poisonous. Even so, it has numerous industrial and commercial applications, and is a byproduct of coal-fired power plants. Through runoff, mercury finds its way into water supplies, and as it passes up the food chain, the concentration increases, leaving people especially vulnerable to its harmful effects.
Among consumer goods, compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) are the most well known carriers of mercury, but it also exists in any product with a fluorescent-backlit LCD panel, including TVs, computers, and other smaller electronics. Though it’s used in very small quantities in these products, mercury’s extremely toxic nature makes it difficult to dispose of these products in a safe manner.
The Good News
LEDs are a viable and arguably superior alternative to fluorescent lights. LED-backlit panels are fast becoming the dominant type of display. Since they contain no mercury, they’re safer then standard CCFL-lit LCD panels. But what most consumers will really care about is that LED displays just look better than conventional LCDs, and they’re thinner, too.
The Bad News
Phosphates are super-effective in dishwasher detergents, but they’ve proven disastrous to the environment. When they leach into bodies of water, phosphates work as nutrients for algae. In high enough concentrations, they can cause algal blooms, which starve fish and other marine life of oxygen.
The Good News
Aware of these dangers, manufacturers began removing phosphates from their detergents in the first decade of the 2000s, opting instead for enzyme-based solutions. While consumers have complained about the inferior cleaning power of these new detergents, the benefit to the environment is unquestionable. A total of 17 states have now banned phosphate detergents.
The Bad News
It takes energy to build and use gadgets and appliances, and on the whole, energy use contributes to greenhouse-gas emissions and in turn, climate change.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 15 years, you know there is no clear-cut solution to climate change. The problem is that environmental sustainability is a bit of a whack-a-mole scenario, where every solution—be it an alternative material or a new production process—seems to leave a new problem in its wake.
Take appliances, for instance: Make them as efficient as you’d like—it’s not going to offset the carbon footprint created by manufacturing and shipping it. So then invest in cleaner fuels and more sustainable logistics—but those don’t amount to much if governments don’t address the larger problems of fossil fuel consumption, energy production, and climate change.
The Good News...Maybe
Appliances become more efficient every year. That’s great. But these small gains don't offset the constant increase in energy usage as developing nations adopt a western lifestyle.
So some scientists are now looking at geo-engineering as a solution. None of these ideas have been implemented yet (and it’s unclear whether they ever will be), but here’s a quick look at some of the more promising possibilities.
Heat Deflection / Solar Shading: Studies have shown that blocking just eight percent of the sun’s radiation would counteract the total warming effect of carbon dioxide pollution. There are a few ways of doing this, ranging from practical to absurd. One idea is to launch trillions of tiny space mirrors into orbit. That sounds…expensive, to say the least. But take a look at how the earth naturally cools itself, and you’ll find a few more ideas: Sulfur particles, which are released naturally by volcanic activity, can block sunlight. Another option is to create bright, highly reflective cloud layers by spraying the upper atmosphere with sea salts. But in either case, it’s hard to predict the unintended consequences.
Sequestration: According to the Department of Energy, oceans will eventually absorb 80 to 90 percent of atmospheric carbon dioxide. So why not expedite the process? Well, it's easier said than done. Aside from the limited scientific understanding of the repercussions of essentially dumping our waste into the ocean, there’s the risk of accidentally unleashing vaults of oceanic methane, which is a much worse greenhouse gas than CO2.
Ocean Fertilization: Scattering large amounts of iron into the world’s seas would generate phytoplankton blooms. The plankton, which are photosynthetic, would consume CO2, then fall to the ocean floor and sequester the carbon dioxide. However, there’s a strong likelihood that such a process would poison entire ecosystems—and theoretical tests have mostly failed, anyway.
While there aren’t any appliances or gadgets that are truly environmentally friendly, new technology is on the road to lessening the impact. Happy Earth Day!