Manufacturers are increasingly evaluating the environmental effects of their practices as eco-consumerism becomes more widespread. Companies can increase their profits by making their product development more sustainable and supporting energy-efficient infrastructure development.
President Biden allocated trillions of dollars to the sustainability sector, promoting low emission production. Reaching carbon neutrality requires a restructuring of the electronic manufacturing sector. Before evaluating the impact of reduction methods, we must examine the degradation associated with commonly used devices.
Life Cycle Assessment
A significant portion of electronic development derives from material mining. Many devices contain lithium-ion batteries, linking manufacturing processes to ecological degradation. Inadequately maintained mining sites pollute local water supplies, like the Liqi River in Tibet. Here, a lithium mine generated a chemical leak, killing a significant quantity of marine life.
Mining also depletes local water sources in drought-ridden regions. Lithium derives from a saltwater brine, which workers extract. Over time, local farming operations suffer from low groundwater levels. The extraction process also pollutes the air, causing adverse health effects.
Inefficient manufacturing processes can also generate pollution by developing electronic waste. The U.S. produces the most e-waste in the world. Chemicals leach into the soil from electronic landfills, which degrades the environment and human health. These dumps contain lead, mercury, cadmium and more, polluting food sources and drinking water. They also contain persistent organic compounds from fire retardants. When consumed, the substances cause cognitive defects in children and behavior or motor skill challenges.
Another environmentally degrading factor of production derives from energy use. China manufactures the highest portion of electronics globally. Coal is China’s largest energy source, fueling many production facilities.
When products leave the center, they absorb a portion of the emissions generated. Fortunately, manufacturing facilities can increase the sustainability of their products by using renewable energy sources. Over time, their environmental impact will decrease.
Renewable Energy Sources
Large corporations recently adopted renewable energy systems in production, meeting eco-consumerism demands. Over the past year and a half, BMW used solar and wind power to decrease the emissions generated by its manufacturing facilities. It also increased the energy efficiency of their products, shrinking their carbon footprint throughout their life cycle.
If China’s electronic manufacturing facilities converted from coal-powered electricity toward renewable energy, they could significantly increase their practices’ sustainability. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adding energy-efficient appliances can decrease a company’s carbon footprint.
Some companies decrease their production facilities’ ecological impacts by swapping conventional lights with light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs. The bulbs absorb 75% less energy than incandescent lights and last 25 times longer.
Improve Product Longevity
The best way to target e-waste is through improving products’ longevity. Some companies utilize planned obsolescence to maintain a consistent revenue stream. The expiration date on electronics increases e-waste production and decreases their sustainability.
Some electronics companies source ceramic and glass for product development. The materials have a limited defense against electronic stressors and generate pollution over time. Replacing the materials with liquid silicone rubber can make a product last longer and eliminate the normalization of planned obsolescence.
Manufacturers can also sustain economic gains by increasing the price of long-lasting products. Customers are more likely to purchase sustainable goods over their less expensive counterparts. If we build products to last, it increases profitability while decreasing environmental impact.
Rather than mining lithium-ion battery elements each time we produce new electronics, we can utilize recycled materials. Environmental engineers and scientists are generating efficient lithium-ion recycling technology, extracting functional features from the devices. The Department of Energy (DOE) developed the first recycling center, increasing the industry’s profitability.
The DOE also developed a program influencing professionals to develop advanced lithium-ion recycling technology. It offered the winner a $5.5 million reward to expand the system’s efficiency. When using recycled materials, manufacturers can reduce their reliance on ecologically degrading mining practices.
Where to Start
Manufacturers can begin decreasing the environmental impact of their practices by leaving fossil fuel-derived electricity sources behind. Renewable energy is abundant and currently cost-effective, improving sustainability rates while reducing utility costs. It also helps companies immediately reduce greenhouse gas emissions, shrinking their carbon footprint and making them more appealing to a new generation of consumers.
Jane Marsh is the founder and editor-in-chief of Environment.co where she covers topics in green technology, energy and environmental sustainability.