The environmental impact of digital technologies
Canadians use digital devices such as tablets, laptops, gaming systems and smartphones in their everyday life. Between work, streaming music and videos, gaming, and video chats with friends and family, there is a growing demand for faster download and upload speeds as we spend more time on these devices.
To keep up with trends and take advantage of advanced features in new devices Canadians are replacing their smartphones more frequently. However, these purchases come with environmental impacts —beyond discarded devices in landfills— digital technologies drive high energy consumption which contributes to the production of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Fact: Most Canadians own a smartphone and almost half of Canadian homes have replaced their landlines with cell phones. The majority of Canadians under 30 years old have a smartphone only and no landline.
Fact: Canadians buy a (new) smartphone once in three years on average. A good portion of those Canadians are buying a smartphone to replace their existing one.
How digital devices impact the environment
The lifecycle of a digital device can contribute to climate change
Every stage in the life cycle of a digital device – manufacturing, shipping, usage and disposal – consumes a lot of energy, which is often generated by burning fossil fuels. Burning fossil fuels is the main cause of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. GHGs build up in the earth's atmosphere and contribute to climate change.
Inside digital devices are precious metals (like gold, silver, lithium, palladium) and other rare earth metals. The process of mining and refining these metals consumes natural resources and uses energy that produces GHG emissions. Manufacturing the plastic casing and the glass screens also consumes both natural resources and electricity. The device and its parts may be manufactured in countries that rely heavily on fossil fuels (e.g., coal, oil, natural gas) to produce electricity. Transporting the devices from distant countries also consumes a great deal of fossil fuels.
The use of a digital device can contribute to climate change
The largest chunk of internet traffic comes from watching shows or social media clips and having video calls, all of which use huge volumes of data. Creating, storing and moving this data requires electricity resulting in GHG emissions.
Every gigabit of data transmitted when using a digital device consumes a significant amount of energy. Energy is used not just while charging a device, but also to operate servers and datacentres which provide the content. Energy is also used to operate the network that transports the data to the person viewing the content.
On top of this, the network equipment used to store and transport data has to be maintained, upgraded, or disposed of. The process of manufacturing, transporting, installing, operating, upgrading or disposing of this equipment adds to the GHG emissions when using a digital device.
Digital devices also contribute to e-waste polluting the environment
Electronic waste, or e-waste, is a growing concernFootnote 1. The increasing number of digital devices being discarded every year is contributing to the rising amount of e-waste.
Only a small fraction of digital devicesFootnote 2 are refurbished to extend their use or recycled for parts and extraction of valuable minerals—most of them are sent to landfills.
Reducing the environmental impact of digital technology
The Canadian government is encouraging the adoption of value-retention processes which include direct reuse, repair, refurbishment, or remanufacturing of products. These activities retain the products' value in the economy and have demonstrable benefits for the environment, both by reducing the amount of energy consumed in the lifecycle of the device and by reducing e-waste. To reduce e-waste, Canadians can explore other ways to handle the disposal of their devices.
Consider finding a new home for an old device
Finding a new home for a device will prevent it from ending up in a landfill, extend its life and benefit the environment. Some alternatives to throwing away devices include:
- Handing it down to a friend or family member
- Donating it to a good cause, such as the Computers for Schools Plus program
- Trading in the old device with a retailer or service provider who will responsibly refurbish the device (for re-sale) or recycle the device
Consider repairing a current device or purchasing a refurbished one
Canadians can verify the manufacturer's warranty for repairs or look up a reputable repair center in their area.
Refurbished digital devices are refreshed, and their functionality is restored to an "almost as new" device, by certified retailers that ensure the refurbished devices meet all original certification standards. Many retailers also provide some form of limited warranty with the purchase of a refurbished device.
Consider recycling a device
Don't throw electronic devices in the garbage! Instead, recycle them to avoid or minimize the pollution associated with adding them to the landfill. Most municipalities run a recycling program for electronics, in addition to other recycling programs that are available in provinces across Canada. These programs will ensure that all reusable parts of a device are recovered as responsibly as possible. The valuable metals in it are extracted for reuse with the latest metal extraction technologies to minimize human exposure to toxins. The remainder of the waste is disposed of with consideration for minimal impact to the environment.
Consider adjusting how you use a device
Taking some simple actions while using a digital device can help reduce GHG emissions. Some examples of simple actions that Canadians can take are:
- When in a meeting with a large number of participants, consider leaving the camera off during a video call, except while speaking. Research shows that one hour of videoconferencing or streaming emits hundreds of grams of carbon dioxideFootnote 3, a key part of GHG emissions.
- Unsubscribing from automatically generated newsletters that are no longer read, and deleting emails with no future value, as the storage of all these emails also uses electricity.
- Turn off your computer after use, unless it needs to stay on to receive planned security updates.
- Disabling an app's updates in the background when you are not using it.