Economics Life Politics Supply Chain Sustainability

Is There Room For The Electronics Industry In A Sustainable World?

Even though I’ve stated that I’m not as interested in sustainability as I used to be, it doesn’t mean I don’t think about it. I have been thinking about it in conjunction with investing and my own work in the electronic industry.

Growth is a very important component to the electronics business. It’s priced into many stocks and it drives much of the electronics food chain. Moore’s law has helped for a long time too. Shrinking the geometry of silicon every 18 months really required manufacturers to update their equipment often. This then drives the equipment manufacturers to advance technology to make the new fabrication possible. The analog engineers (ok, digital too) out there utilize the new chips and make requests for the next generation. The ripple effect continues all the way down the line, requiring input from the manfacturers and returning revenue to the shareholders of said manufacturers. Like I said, this growth is an assumption and is priced into how people invest in companies involved in electronics manufacturing.

There’s no denying that electronics are a dirty business. Not oil-gushing-from-a-hole-in-the-ocean dirty, but still, not exactly the most environmentally friendly situation either. The chemicals used in semiconductor manufacturing are not known for their safety nor their easy disposal; I’ve only had training on how bad they can mess people up but it goes beyond that; there are entire departments in semiconductor manufacturing facilities devoted to containing and disposing of the chemicals. Outside of the semiconductor world manufacturers have had to drastically reduce the amount of lead in products (in the solder and otherwise) but there are still elements of boards and parts that are not good for the environment. And given both the amount of turnover in the products that people consume year to year and the fact that very few products are designed for long term use, almost all electronics are bound for a landfill within a 10 year time frame (unless recycled). All of this adds up to a nasty picture for the planet.

A business built on growth and components that are not biodegradable nor regulated in their disposal. Is this model sustainable? Can manufacturers continue making products that are not safe for disposal and yet expect people to continuously update their personal electronic portfolio at home? Can manufacturers continue to crank out new devices ad nauseum and not be held responsible for the impact they make?

I do not believe the long term growth of electronics will plateau. While this may be good for my own career, part of me is very conflicted by the idea that my own success could be tied to the fact that we will have to consume more and more over time. Growth will always be driven by the next “must have device”, updating of previous generation devices and bringing electronics to a greater percentage of the population. But how can we rectify the needs (or perceived needs as it may be) with the very real issues and impacts associated with modern electronics? The material and energy inputs required and the waste from technology churn all make for hundreds of miles worth of disposed and forgotten cellphones and CRT monitors which took large amounts of the earth’s resources to make.

So assuming that growth of the electronics industry will continue unabated for various reasons, I think the question is better asked: Is a sustainable world possible with the electronics industry as we know it today?

I don’t usually say it on this site, but I have no clue about the answer to this question. Do you? Is it possible for there to be a healthy electronics industry when taking the planet into account? How does this affect the business model and should the people that manufacture products be responsible for what happens to the at the end of the products’ lifetime? Please let us know in the comments.

By Chris Gammell

Chris Gammell is an engineer who talks more than most other engineers. He also writes, makes videos and a couple podcasts. While analog electronics happen to be his primary interests, he also dablles in FPGAs and system level design.

One reply on “Is There Room For The Electronics Industry In A Sustainable World?”

The Ontario provincial gov’t recently implemented a new enviromental recovery fee for all newly purchased electronics. This fee is supposed to pay for the proper disposal of obsolete electronics. Good enough? Dunno.

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