Is electronic waste the downside of rush to invest in tech?

Technology offers us a range of positive solutions to address climate change. But in creating mountains of electronic waste, it also poses a threat. How can companies keep their ESG commitments on track?

As people return to the office, digital transformation seems to be the name of the game when it comes to rebuilding the workplace to suit new hybrid working needs. But is this rush of investment in technology at odds with a newfound desire for companies to be sustainable?

Opinion is to some extent split. Technology that enables remote work can help to cut carbon emissions, but it also poses multiple risks to the environment and the health and wellbeing of the people who live alongside waste disposal sites. So, what can companies do to mitigate the negative impact of their electronic waste?

Understanding the impact

It’s clear that technological innovation can help firms monitor and reduce their carbon footprints and help them to transition to a carbon-neutral landscape in order to prevent and control the harmful effects of climate change. However, the mining processes and materials used in most of our technology are in themselves damaging the environment. Consequently, a closer look at technology and its role in creating a sustainable office is needed.

Research by the World Economic Forum highlights how approximately 50 million tonnes of electronic and electrical waste is produced each year, but only 20 per cent of this is recycled. These predictions are only set to increase, with the amount of waste due to increase to 120 million tonnes annually by 2050 if no action is taken.

‘Around 50 million tonnes of electronic and electrical waste is produced but only 20 per cent is recycled…’

This waste poses a complex issue for the environment. Not only are materials used in laptops often very valuable and therefore precious and limited resources are being wasted during this process, but the mining processes to procure them can also be very damaging to the environment and nearby communities.

Activist platform Trvst highlights how mining for these materials can cause deforestation, water pollution and landscape degradation as well as producing large amounts of carbon dioxide during the mining process, therefore contributing towards damage to the environment.

Additionally, when electronic items are discarded, some of the materials in laptops, phones and other devices produce chemicals that can endanger the health of animals and people, polluting water sources and food chains as well as exposing people working in these environments to toxic and carcinogenic substances, according to the World Economic Forum.

The creation of e-waste is therefore a question of both people and planetary health which should be taken into consideration when companies look at the technology they provide for their employees.

‘Creation of e-waste is therefore a question of both environmental and human health…’

E-waste epidemic

So what can employers do to make their technology more sustainable?

The first step is to think about what employers truly need: technology its own sake is not the answer to any problems within the workplace and will not add to the employee experience, so before investing in new technologies companies should ask themselves whether the tech kit they are procuring is solving problems for them.

Secondly, companies can adopt sustainable policies with their technology. This could include a commitment to providing second-hand, refurbished laptops and phones to employees wherever possible.

Such a policy would help reduce the level of e-waste produced by the company and help keep high-functioning technology in circulation. Often second-hand technology is refurbished to a very high standards and can be just as good as buying new, as well as offering a potential cost saving.

Research also shows that employees are increasingly concerned about the environment, so having sustainable policies could be attractive to staff members.

New doesn’t have to be negative

Alternatively, looking into technology that is designed with a full lifecycle in mind can help reduce e-waste significantly. Companies like Fairphone make smart phones from recycled materials and provide spare parts, and upgrades that can be added to the existing phone without need for a replacement. As a result, they are easy to repair and significantly reduce the amount of waste produced by the electronics industry.

Companies like these offer an eco-alternative to the big tech providers and can provide an equally good customer experience for employees.

Sustainability doesn’t have to be about compromise – it can lie alongside a desire to provide a wonderful workplace experience. Thinking about where and when technology is needed and how to reduce e-waste is an increasingly important step for companies wising to take their ESG responsibilities seriously.

Technology offers us a range of benefits when it comes to improving our carbon footprint and helping us tackle climate change, but a truly sustainable approach to technology requires thinking through the whole lifecycle of each piece of tech kit and considering its impact on the planet at every stage.

Echo Callaghan is an interdisciplinary researcher and writer with WORKTECH Academy. She holds degrees from the University of York and Trinity College Dublin.
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