We Love Our Gadgets, But Are They Hurting the Environment?

It’s no secret that digital technology is changing the way we work, communicate, collaborate, listen to music, stream videos, connect with old friends and more. Now, almost everything we need is accessible by the click of a button or the swipe of a screen. It’s convenient and it’s quick, but how much damage is it really doing to our environment? We almost don’t want to think about it. We want to continue to use one-click shopping and have that package appear on our doorstep in two days, no questions ask. Yet, we must ask the questions and we must seek the answers on our quest to live a more sustainable, globally-conscious lifestyle.

Let’s start with the labor aspect.

It might look like magic, but it’s not. The technology used to power our smart devices is very concrete and most of it is comprised of raw materials. Sure, you could spring for a recycled model and feel a little better about your purchase, but the reality is that even those systems have to be made somewhere, by someone. Unless the manufacturer follows a green initiative to utilize renewable energy, the power used to run those operations is likely derived from gas or oil.

These days, we swap out our smartphones quicker than most toddlers change shoe sizes. It’s cool to have the latest software version complete with all of the bells and whistles. Yet, as we continue to consume, are we exacerbating the issue? The answer is a resounding “yes” and here’s why.

Let’s start with solder. It’s a binder or adhesive used to keep the inner workings of smart gadgets together. In other words, it’s what’s working behind the scenes to make sure all those tiny components are functioning inside your system like they should. To obtain solder, manufacturers have to derive it from its raw form, which is tin ore. One area in East Indonesia’s Bangka Island is recognized as the global center of tin mining. Here, miners have worked for centuries to dig down into underground tunnels and seek out cassiterite, the dark mineral that characterizes the tin ore. 

If you own a smartphone, tablet, flat-screen television or similar device, you’ve likely held the mineral in your hands. To produce the amount you’re holding (which can be up to three grams if you have an iPad), Indonesian workers have to devote a ton of time to manual labor. The kicker? They aren’t using automated machines to take care of a majority of the grunt work for them. Rather, they’re doing it all by hand with pickaxes and similar iron tools, many of them young and uninitiated and learning on the job. From mudslides to collapses, the very act of tin mining is inherently dangerous and the labor system in the country means that wages are low and hours are long, yet as our fervor for the latest tech gadget grows stronger, the demand is increasingly high. 

What about the environment?

While the human element of gadget production is eyebrow-raising, so too is its impact on the environment. In offshore mining operations around Bangka, dredge pumps penetrate the ocean to extract ore. During the process, harmful sediment, including tin, is scattered back into the water, as are any captured gases, including carbon dioxide, which is then pumped back into the atmosphere.

As a result of this pollution, the waters around these mining communities have suffered, with marine populations dying out and taking the local fishing trade and tourist industry with them. Even if they don’t completely die, other underwater elements, including coral reefs, are becoming so buried by the drawn-up sediment that they’re in danger of soon deteriorating. Even mining activities that take place on land are harming the local vegetation, with entire holes being carved into the Indonesian landscape as miners seek to find sources of more ore. 

Moving Forward: How to Take Action

It’s easy to say that the smart thing to do is just abandon your devices and live off the grid. Yet, there are many instances in which technology can be used for good. The key is to balance your consumption and slowly decrease your reliance upon such gadgets. If your current electronics are working fine, don’t rush out and buy a newer model (leaving you with two) just because you can. If they’re broken, try to repair your gadgets before making a new purchase. 

While you’re at it, contact your electronics companies and bring issues like these to their attention. The more people speak up, the greater the opportunity to drive real change. Look for companies with a green policy in place to source their materials from areas with ethical labor laws, and who strive to conserve energy and build sustainability around every turn. While we may never again know a world in which we can’t order groceries from the palm of our hand, we can still help the next generation understand that with great power comes great responsibility, and we must do our part.