Section Three - Materials
A story about modular phones and urban mining (17 minutes)
In the previous section we stated that technology is bad for the environment. In the next two sections we will look at two specific topics concerning the relationship between technology and the environment: materials and energy. We will focus mainly on digital technology and start with materials.
In this section we will do this by using the example of the smartphone.
Materials of the smartphone
If we design, invent , use or assess a technology it is important to look at the materials and, especially, the characteristics of the materials that are used. The questions you could ask are:
- What is the impact on the environment of the materials that are used?
- What are the (environmental) costs of mining the materials?
- Can the materials be circulated?
- Can the materials be reused?
- Are all the materials that are used really necessary?
- Are there alternatives?
These questions are important for every technology, but certainly also for digital technology. Digital technology is growing exponentially, so a lot of problems with the materials are growing exponentially too. In the last 30 years, we have seen the rise of computers, servers, networks, data-centres in the cloud, smart devices and – of course – smartphones.
Let’s look at the smartphone for a moment. Do you know what is in your smartphone? Watch this video from 2016 (when having an iPhone 6 was still very cool!) – 3 minutes:
Pretty impressive right?
There are a lot of materials you probably never heard of in a smartphone. There are almost 3 billion smartphone users in the world. A lot of users. A lot of smartphones. They all need these materials. A lot of the materials in a smartphone have to mined and mining is incredibly destructive for the environment. Forests are decimated, ground and water is polluted and rare species are threatened everywhere. This is amplified because billions of people really need a new phone every two years.
Above, we already listed the questions you could ask regarding the materials of a digital technology. Do you ask those questions when you are considering a new phone? Or do you think about questions like this:
- What is the life span of the product and what can I do to extend the life span of the smartphone?
- Is the smartphone easy to repair?
- Does the smartphone enable recycling of its materials?
- How is the smartphone produced? Handled? Shipped? Can this be more efficient when it comes to materials?
Most people do not ask those questions. Otherwise products like the Fairphone would be even more popular. The Fairphone is a smartphone that is commited to giving the best answers possible to the questions above.
Quick explanation of the Fairphone (1.30 minutes) - sorry for the advertisement.
Do smartphones break on purpose?
Smartphones often get discarded after a mere couple of years’ use. Screens or buttons break, batteries die, or their operating systems, apps, and so on can suddenly no longer be upgraded. Yet a solution is always near at hand: brand new handset models, pumped out every year or so, and touted as “the best ever."
This is very bad for the environment. But, there’s no doubt about it: this consumer model is also very good for our quality of life. Replacing things is good for the economy. Smartphones that are replaced every two years result in relentless innovation and competition for market share. This means that the underlying technologies in smartphones keep surging ahead, with faster processors, better cameras, and so on.
However, the real question is: do smartphones break on purpose? Is obsolescence planned? Do smartphones self-destruct by design? Accordingly, though examples clearly exist to the contrary, some business academics feel that it’s a bit over-the-top to assume many companies sit around plotting how to precisely engineer a product to self-destruct.
Of course, it has happened and it happens, but times are changing.
A business-minded approach to smarter recycling, reuse and repurposing has arguably made a big dent and will so in future. For instance, Tesla, the electric automobile manufacturer, has plans to take back the spent batteries in its clients’ cars and repurpose them for home energy storage. The company also auto downloads and upgrades the software in its clients’ cars as the vehicles charge overnight. We already saw the example of the Fairphone. The times they are a-changin'. Businesses are getting more aware of their responsibility towards the environment. That is a very strong antidote to planned obsolescence.
In a way – it makes obsolescence obsolete.
If we look at the paragraph above from the perspective of the circular economy, we see it is possible to have your cake and eat it too. Please watch this 6 minute video:
In a circular economy all technical materials are reused. Nothing goes to waste. So, if a smartphone breaks really fast it is not a problem, because the smartphone still provides the raw materials for new generations of smartphones. In an ideal world this means economic growth, innovation and reusing of all raw materials can go hand in hand.
Of course, we are still far from an ideal world.
When assessing a product, two important questions are:
- Is the technology made entirely of materials that were previously part of another technology, or were materials 'taken from the ground?'
- Is it easy to reuse materials in a technology?
Anatomy of Siri
When you think about materials then it is obvious to only look at the technology in front of you. In this case, the smartphone. However, all kinds of applications run on the smartphone, which need all kinds of backend systems that consist of an enormous collection of materials. Also, there are many people involved and a lot of energy is needed, as we will see in section four.
This amazing video (1.33 minutes) shows the anatomy of an AI system (things like the Amazon Echo, Google Home or Apple's Siri on your smartphone).
Finally, we would like to introduce you to the concept of urban mining. Urban mining is the process of recovering rare metals from electrical waste (old smartphones, for example) through mechanical and chemical treatments. Urban mining is a cool concept, especially when you do it in places like old iron melting plants. A lot of people think that one day soon it will be a lot bigger than classical mining.
Finally, check this video on urban mining (2 minutes):
Did you also notice that this video has the same ominous background music as the depressing videos from section one about the climate? We don't know why, to be honest. It does not seem appropriate to us.
Take aways from section three:
- Modern digital technology is often made of many and rare materials;
- Modern digital technology grows exponentially;
- The mining of the materials is very bad for the environment;
- Especially when technology is designed to break;
- That is why the circular economy is so important;
- And Urban Mining is such a cool concept.