An environmental perspective on digitalisation

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Digital transformation is often presumed to have a positive impact towards a more sustainable, smarter and greener society based on an environmentally friendly economy. On the other hand, issues such as production conditions, exploitation of raw materials, consumption of energy and waste production pose additional challenges and questions. From an environmental perspective, learning digital transformation asks for a critical reflection about production, consumption and waste perspectives.

Goals

  • Develop awareness for the opportunities and challenges different paths of economic growth provide for digital transformation using the example of mobile phones

Steps

1. Present the three scenarios from the work Future E-waste Scenarios: linear growth, reactive approach and proactive path.

Since the introduction of smartphones, the mobile phone industry has seen incredible growth and technological evolution. Today there are more mobile phones than people living on earth, and most of the metals in the periodic table can be found in a single smartphone. During the last decade, a wide range of phone features and prices have become available. Further increase in demand for mobile phones is inevitable, but a sustainable mobile phone has yet to be designed.

SCENARIO 1: LINEAR GROWTH

The business-as-usual approach will only result in phones with shorter lifespans that are neither suitable for lifetime extension (e.g., through repair and reuse) nor efficient material recovery. In the race of selling more, better, and cheaper mobile phones, environmental and social issues linked to sourcing of metals and product manufacturing are ignored by the producers, who are not even taking their minimum legislative responsibility seriously. Hence, producers are unable to take their phones back at the EoL, but consumers are also not demanding large-scale recovery, mainly due to lacking awareness.

SCENARIO 2: REACTIVE APPROACH

Stricter regulations force producers to take more responsibility in providing software upgrades and designing hardware to support easy repair for a few years after purchase. Components with higher and faster failure chances (e.g., batteries and screens) are available as spare parts; however, repair costs remain high. EoL collection is still a logistical challenge and material recycling is not financially viable, though technologically possible, for all elements used in a smartphone. A large number of EoL phones are stocked in users’ drawers, as there are no promising incentives to increase collection rates.

SCENARIO 3: PROACTIVE PATH

Modular phones are becoming popular, giving consumers the best choice for the features they need. New operating systems are also available for previous models across different makes and models, giving old phones a new life. In addition, purchasing smartphone services, instead of simply the product itself, is popular. Users pay for the data and phone services, and are offered hardware upgrades at no extra fee. Producers retain ownership, which makes take-back and eventual EoL management smoother. Users are incentivized to return the old phones they no longer use, which ensures that most phones enter the proper EoL management system. EoL management operation, including recycling and reuse of phones, as well their components, are also eased due to better design considerations.

2. Ask participants to read the three scenarios in their group and let them discuss.

  • What aspects might be the reasons for choosing one of the three paths.
  • Which path would you follow?

Reflection

Discuss consequences of the different scenarios and where difficulties may arise.

  • What would be your choice, and what consequences would that have concretely?
  • What can you do as an individual user/customer?
  • What difficulties might arise?
  • What can you do as a group?
  • Where is external regulation needed?

Reference

  • Parajuly, K.; Kuehr, R.; Awasthi, A. K.; Fitzpatrick, C.; Lepawsky, J.; Smith E.; Widmer, R.; Zeng, X., (2019), Future E-waste Scenarios, StEP (Bonn), UNU ViE-SCYCLE (Bonn) & UNEP IETC (Osaka). Future E-waste Scenarios

Time 45 minutes

Material Standard, handout of the scenarios

Group Size 5-25 people

Keywords growth, environment, sustainability


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