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size & shape
This page considers the ecological impact of the internet
and the 'information economy', exploring claims that digital
is necessarily greener and cleaner.
It covers -
introduction - questions
about ideologies, expectations and uncertainties in
exploring the environmental impact of the net
and the glass pipeline - does virtuality and disintermediation
involve a reduction in energy and material use
and clustering - digital nomads, congestion pricing,
dot-com clustering and other geospatial issues
- packaging, consumption and 'e-waste' and other technotrash
- offshoring pollution along with production?
- major works on the internet, digital economy and environment
For enthusiasts one reason for the 'newness' of the 'new
economy' is that it is supposedly cleaner and greener
than superseded smokestack or rustbelt economies, with
greater uptake of digital technologies being associated
with a significantly reduced impact on local and global
ecologies in the short and long terms.
The vision is one of the machine in the garden, far far
from the madding crowds, toxic waste dumps or ugly smokestacks
- a post-industrial collage of Bambi meets the iPod, telework
and responsible consumption by enlightened consumers.
Some have expressed alarm about the energy
requirements of the digital economy or insidious (because
invisible) ecological damage. Others have more prosaically
claimed that developed economies are "drowning in
plastic" and - having run out of landfill for burial
of obsolete personal computers, fridges and other junk
- are being "forced" to offshore waste disposal
in a grim echo of offshoring
Alas, the evidence for many claims is problematical.
There is considerable uncertainty about the local/global
environmental impact of the net, with benefits apparently
often being offset by disadvantages and the significance
of particular problems being overstated by some champions.
Particular statistics, including some that are recurrently
featured in studies by government and advocacy groups,
sometimes confuse substances used in manufacturing processes
rather than incorporated in each shipped item and generally
do not include comparisons with past practice.
dematerialisation and the glass pipeline
Internet pundits and digital economy cheerleaders such
as NOIE have often claimed that 'dematerialisation' of
the economy will result in substantial energy and commodity
Those claims encompass major reductions in -
production (and associated transport and storage savings)
through adoption of the paperless office
used for newsprint and junkmail, with consumers presumed
to rely on electronic media.
An example is the 1997 statement that -
By 2003, e-materialization of paper alone holds the
prospect of cutting energy consumption by about 0.25%
of total industrial energy use and net [greenhouse gas]
GHG emissions by a similar percentage. By 2008, the
reductions are likely to be more than twice as great.
We also believe the Internet Economy could render unnecessary
as much as 3 billion square feet of buildings - some
5% of U.S. commercial floor space - which would likely
save a considerable amount of construction-related energy.
By 2010, e-materialization of paper, construction, and
other activities could reduce U.S. industrial energy
and GHG emissions by more than 1.5%.
by Ralph Gay, Robert Davis, Don Phillips & Daniel
Sui on Modeling Paradigm for the Environmental Impacts
of the Digital Economy more ambitiously suggested
to 50% reduction in life cycle energy and pollutant
expenditures with e-commerce in the personal computer
it is unlikely that B2B gains in that industry will -
or can - be replicated in other sectors.
of the paperless office have been debunked in works such
as The Myth of the Paperless Office (Cambridge:
MIT Press 2001) by Abigail Sellen & Richard Harper
which note that paper use has substantially increased,
partly because ready access to textprocessing software
and printers has encouraged iterative production of drafts
- a luxury in the era of handwriting and manual typewriters
- and the proliferation of reports, memoranda and letters.
persuasive case has been made for savings through 'just
in time' production, with manufacturers leveraging the
'glass pipeline' to reduce inter-firm and intra-firm waste
in material and transport costs. Claims in reports such
as Virtual dematerialisation: ebusiness and factor
have however been disputed, with critics noting that mooted
savings often are not achived in practice or suggesting
that customisation encourages "frivolous" production
mobility and clustering
Futurists have similarly forecast major savings regarding
transport infrastructure, particularly in cities, as
consumers will identify and purchase goods electronically
rather than travelling to retail premises
to the ozone layer and the construction of hotels, with
people relying on electronic communications rather than
travelling by air for face to face contact
need for office accommodation - indeed in cities (which
as noted earlier in this guide are an apparent bugaboo
of futurists such as George Gilder) - because people
will efficiently telecommute from an unspoiled rural
location rather than crowding into a tower in a central
claims appeared naive when first articulated and have
not improved over time.
Telecommuting, for example, has not eliminated the office;
it has instead meant that some workers are 'on call' at
all times. Connectivity appears to have resulted in increased
rather than decreased travel: face to face remains important.
Etailing appears to have displaced rather than reduced
logistics, as the commodity still has to get to the consumer.
It may indeed be more environmentally friendly to visit
a retailer and put the woolly jumper under your arm rather
than receive it - and the packaging - from an etailer
via a delivery service.
There is similar controversy about the extent and treatment
of waste, whether that is 'technotrash' such as superseded
personal computers, mobile phones and microwave ovens
or more traditional junk such as discarded packaging,
furniture, industrial equipment and even disposable nappies.
Elsewhere we have noted
claims that the average amount of Waste Electrical &
Electronic Equipment (WEEE) disposed of by a single EU
consumer of over a lifetime is 3 tonnes, with the UK for
example disposing of over 1 million tonnes of computer
monitors, servers, personal computers and mobile phones
(along with 500,000 television sets and 3 million refrigerators)
every year. US group Computer TakeBack indicated
315 to 600 million desktop and laptop computers in the
U.S. will soon be obsolete ... One report estimates
that a pile of these obsolete computers would reach
a mile high and cover six acres
somewhat smaller area than the discarded phone books.
Some of the more alarmist calls for action include -
More than 250 million computers in the United States
may become obsolete in the next five years, and those
machines, along with televisions, VCRs and cell phones,
are flooding the nation's landfills. As a result, substances
such as lead, mercury, chromium and cadmium are seeping
into the environment
equipment may contain lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium
and flame-retardants. These materials can be hazardous
if improperly managed at end-of-life. A typical desktop
computer monitor contains approximately two kilograms
of lead. [That claim is difficult to believe unless
the device is shielded like a nuclear reactor]
lack of environmentally sound computer recycling operations
has led to e-waste being responsible for 70% of all
heavy metals found in U.S. landfills today. ...
Since our recycling programs cannot handle the vast
amounts of waste, up to 80% of the e-waste is actually
exported to Asia, where it ends up in riverbeds or is
illegally and improperly disposed
Swiss federal government's e-Waste Guide site
more sensibly notes that
The formation or discharge of hazardous emissions during
the recycling of electrical and electronic equipment
depends highly on the handling of electronic waste.
Hence hazardous substances contained in computers and
televisions don't lead automatically to a risk for the
environment and the human health. Some recycling processes
(as cable burning) applied in transition and developing
countries can cause serious health problems and contaminate
air, water and soil.
the annual volume of garbage has increased over the past
50 years that is consistent with population growth (with
the number of people in the US and Australia doubling
since the early 1930s and tripling since the 1890s.
Per capita domestic waste has not shown a marked increase
over the past half century. Growth in domestic and industrial
waste - of the technotrash variety or otherwise - has
arguably been offset by reductions in other waste, with
claims for example that at the turn of last century the
average US consumer was responsible for around 1200 pounds
of coal ash and 20 pounds of manure per year.
A perspective on claims about the prevalence of e-waste
in domestic landfill is provided in Rubbish! The Archaeology
of Garbage (Tucson: Uni of Arizona Press 2001) by
William Rathje & Cullen Murphy, suggesting that paper
accounts for around 40% of volume in domestic landfill.
Newspapers supposedly accounting for 13% of the total
volume of US domestic fill, with a year's New York
Times occupying the space of 18,660 crushed aluminum
The energy requirements for producing and distributing
the Times (turning trees into paper, getting
ink onto the dried treeflakes and getting the resultant
publication into the hands of the consumer) versus the
cans or devices for online publications are unclear.
Other observers have fretted about the impact of economic
growth. Lester Brown for example argued in 2006 that
has now overtaken America as the world's leading resource
consumer. Among the basic commodities - grain and meat
in the food sector, oil and coal in the energy sector,
and steel in the industrial sector - China now consumes
more of each of these than the US except for oil. It
consumes nearly twice as much meat - 67m tonnes compared
with 39m tonnes in the US; and more than twice as much
steel - 258m tonnes to 104m. The important questions
now are: what if China's consumption per person of these
resources reaches the current US level, and how long
will it take for China's income per person to reach
the US level?
If China's economy expands at 8% a year in the decades
ahead, its income per person will reach the current
US level in 2031. If at that point China's resource
consumption per person were the same as that in the
US today, its 1.45 billion people would consume the
equivalent of two-thirds of the current world grain
harvest. China's paper consumption would be double the
world's current production. Say goodbye to the world's
forests. If China were to have three cars for every
four people - as in the US - it would have 1.1bn cars.
Worldwide today there are 800m cars. To provide the
roads and parking spaces to accommodate such a vast
fleet, China would have to pave an area comparable to
the land it now plants in rice - 29m hectares (72m acres).
It would use 99m barrels of oil a day; the world currently
produces only 84m barrels daily, and may never produce
western economic model - the fossil fuel-based, car-centred,
throwaway economy - is not going to work for China.
If it does not work for China, it will not work for
nation, of course, appears to be listening.
Hyperbole about the likelihood of e-waste leaching into
the water supply or ending up in the food chain has resulted
in offshoring of waste disposal along with manufacturing.
The Basel Action Network commented in 2005 that
often, justifications of 'building bridges
over the digital divide' are used as excuses to obscure
and ignore the fact that these bridges double as toxic
Australia the 2006 Advancing Australia report
estimated that 1.6 million personal computers were disposed
of in landfill, a further 1.8 million were added to storage (in addition to 5.3
million held in garages, sheds and other storage areas)
and 0.5 million were recycled. In the US it is claimed
that around 15% of obsolete personal computers arrive
in local landfills, with a further 10% going to community
organisations for reuse or to secondary markets for salvage
or resale. Reuse is inhibited by hardware limitations
(the average consumer cannot do much with a 1980s diskette)
or software incompatibility. Supposedly 75% of PCs, printers
and other e-devices just "sits around" in garages
or other storage; it is likely that there is much surreptitious
dumping - in breach of local/national ordinances such
as the US Resource Conservation & Recovery Act.
Such legislation, which often makes manufacturers or distributors
responsible for end-of-life disposal of devices, has encouraged
shipment of equipment to locations where -
labour costs and OH&S standards enable components
to be salvaged (eg circuit boards can be melted down
to recover metals, cables can be stripped to recover
the copper wire, PC cases can be chipped to recover
either encourage burial of foreign hardware (eg heavy
equipment with PCB or asbestos) or turn a blind eye
to its illicit disposal
The UK Environment Agency suggested in 2004 that some
23,000 tonnes of ICT hardware had gone offshore illegally,
typically to jurisdictions such as China, west Africa,
Pakistan and India.
Concerns about exports of technotrash are highlighted
in the Basel Action Group's 2002 Exporting Harm: The
High-Tech Trashing of Asia (PDF),
Eric Williams' 2005 International activities on E-waste
and guidelines for future work (PDF),
Robert Bortner's Asia Near East (ANE) Computer Recycling
and Disposal (E-Waste) paper (doc)
and the 2005 Greenpeace International report (PDF)
Resources regarding shipbreaking are highlighted here.
The latter claimed river sediment, soil and ground water
samples around the southern Chinese city of Guiyu and
New Delhi contained what the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition
described as "really scary" levels of contamination
attributable to e-waste, including elevated levels of
lead, cadmium, antimony and other heavy metals used in
electronics, along with polybrominated diphenyl ethers
and polychlorinated biphenyls.
Tighter restrictions on making e-trash disappear by shipping
it over the ocean have arguably underpinned initiatives
such as Close
the Gap that involve businesses donating used IT gear
to the Third World, something that looks good in corporate
promo and addresses EU concerns about dumping junk at
'Big picture' perspectives are provided by Bjorn Lomborg's
controversial The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring
the Real State of the World (Cambridge: Cambridge
Uni Press 2001), Bjrn-Ola Linnr's The Return of Malthus:
Environmentalism and Post-War Population-Resource Crises
(Isle of Harris: White Horse Press 2003), Global Crisis,
Global Solutions (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press
2004), Giles Slade's Made to Break: Technology &
Obsolescence in America (Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press
2006) and Jeremy Leggett's The Carbon War: Dispatches
from the End of the Oil Era (London: Allen Lane 1999).
Attempts at identifying the ecological impact of the net
arecontentious, given the muddiness of much data, disagreement
about basic definitions and questions about extrapolation.
Two examples are the 2001 OECD paper by H. Scott Matthews
& Chris Hendrickson on Economic & Environmental
Implications of Online Retailing in the United States
Klaus Fichter's 2001 paper for the German federal environment
ministry on Environmental Effects of E-Business and
Internet Economy: First Insights & Environment-political
eWaste and other waste disposal features in Richard Girling's
rather grumpy Rubbish! A Chronicle of Waste (London:
Transworld 2005), Elizabeth Royte's polemical Garbage
Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash (Boston: Little
Brown 2005), Elizabeth Grossman's High Tech Trash:
Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics & Human Health
(Washington: Island Press 2006), John Scanlan's On
Garbage (London: Reaktion 2005) and Heather Rogers'
Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage (New
York: The New Press 2007).
For anti-consumption tracts see Affluenza (St
Leonards: Allen & Unwin 2005) and Growth Fetish
(St Leonards: Allen & Unwin 2003) by Clive Hamilton
& Richard Denniss, their 2005 Wasteful Consumption
in Australia (PDF)
with David Baker, or Joel Kovel's The Enemy of Nature:
The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? (London:
Zed Books 2002). Other dystopian visions are highlighted
here. The River Runs
Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future
(Ithaca: Cornell Uni Press 2004) by Elizabeth Economy
is persuasive, although notions of Chinese exceptionalism
might be tempered through consultation of Mark Elvin's
superb The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental
History of China (New Haven: Yale Uni Press 2004).
Works on environmental politics (or the professionalisation
of environmental lobbying)
include Samuel Hays' A History of Environmental Politics
since 1945 (Pittsburgh: Uni of Pittsburgh Press 2000),
Drew Hutton & Libby Connors' A History of the
Australian Environment Movement (Cambridge: Cambridge
Uni Press 1999), Christopher Bosso's Environment,
Inc: From Grassroots to Beltway (Lawrence: Uni Press
of Kansas, 2005), Martin Mulligan & Stuart Hill's
Ecological Pioneers: A Social History of Australian
Ecological Thought and Action (Cambridge: Cambridge
Uni Press 2002), Adam Rome's The Bulldozer in the
Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American
Environmentalism (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press
2001), Paul Sutter's Driven Wild: How the Fight against
Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement
(Seattle: Uni of Washington Press 2002) and Robert Gottlieb's
Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American
Environmental Movement (Washington: Island Press
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