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OUR DIGITAL WORLD IS NOT SO CLEAN

OUR DIGITAL WORLD IS NOT SO CLEAN
Allan Maynard, MSc. – October 2021

A 4 MINUTE READ — The internet and associated technologies have taken over our lives with an ecological impact that is impossible to ignore.
This is the next article in the series – “FOOTPRINTS – By the numbers” – addressing the environmental impact (or FOOTPRINT) of some of our normal, everyday lives.

When I was growing up in the 1950s – phones were attached to the wall with the phone lines shared with neighbours – “the party line” as it was called. The first computer I encountered was in 1966 at Simon Fraser University. It was the size of a living room and basically processed calculations. Fast forward to now.

In the space of 50 years, the digital world has grown to become crucial to the functioning of society. Computer processing power has increased a staggering 1 trillion times between the early 80s and now. The revolution has proceeded at breakneck speed — approximately 4.1 billion people, or 53.6% of the global population, now use the internet. No technology has reached more people in as short a space of time and it is far from finished.

The benefits of digital technology are immeasurable – society can no longer carry on without it. However, the negative aspects of the internet are also many and growing – One of the many significant negative aspects is — THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT.

ONE OF GOOGLE’S DATA CENTERS

CARBON FOOTPRINT

Every single search query, every streamed song or video and every email sent, billions of times over all around the world all adds up to an ever-increasing global demand for electricity by the central servers and data storage centers. Our increasing reliance on digital tools has an environmental impact that’s becoming increasingly harder to ignore.

One of the difficulties in working out the carbon footprint of our internet habits is that few can agree on what should and should not be included. In reviewing the literature though – most reports calculate that the carbon footprint of our gadgets, the internet and the systems supporting them account for about 3.4 to 4% of global greenhouse emissions – comparable to the global airline industry. These emissions are expected to double by 2025.

Most significant in energy use is cryptocurrency. Solving the equations to acquire new bitcoins (referred to as “mining”) requires large volumes of computer hardware that frequently overheats and is extremely energy intensive. Estimates put the annual energy usage of bitcoin mining equivalent to that of Sweden or Malaysia.
And as these “mines” multiply, their operations begin to stretch and even overwhelm national power grids. Iran banned bitcoin mining last month after it led to blackouts. Multiple provinces in China, one of the world’s biggest producers of bitcoin, banned mining too, leading miners to relocate their hardware to sites of more traditional underground extraction in Canada and South Dakota.

POLLUTION FROM PRODUCTION OF OUR DEVICES

For their production, green energy and digital technologies require a variety of precious and rare earth metals. For the most part, they exist in minute quantities in metal ores that also contain more abundant metals such as copper. For example, a tonne of rock produces ONLY four to seven grams of the precious metal – platinum (about 0.0004 to 0.0007 %). The extraction of these minerals is difficult and complex, requiring abundant labour, chemicals, water, and land. Two examples (of many) are provided.

Example 1 – China produces 45% of the world’s metals and 95% of some of the key rare earth metals. It is also now the biggest consumer of metals in the world. China also has some of the most polluted rivers and land areas in the world due to this prominence. From north near the Mongolian border to south in Guangdong, China is struggling to clean up the environment polluted by mining. The clean-up process is expensive and time-consuming, and some say it could be 50-100 years for the environment to recover. A 2019 US Army report highlights a central issue driving rare-earth pollution in China: “China is less burdened with environmental or labor regulatory requirements that can greatly increase costs incurred in mining and manufacturing rare-earth products.”

Example 2 -In Malaysia, Mitsubishi Chemical is now engaged in a $100 million cleanup of its Bukit Merah rare earths processing site, which it closed in 1992 amid opposition from local residents and Japanese politicians and environmentalists. It is one of Asia’s largest radioactive waste cleanup sites, and local physicians said the thorium contamination from the plant has led to an increase in leukemia and other ailments.

WASTE FROM DISPOSAL (also called E-Waste)

An international study by Global Waste (see link below) concluded that the world dumped a record 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste last year. To put that in perspective this is equivalent to the weight of 350 cruise ships the size of the Queen Mary 2, To make matters worse, just 17 per cent (approximately) of it was recycled, meaning that an estimated $57 billion worth of gold, silver, copper, platinum and other high-value, recoverable materials used as components were mostly dumped or burned rather than being collected for treatment and reuse.

Planned Obsolescence – One important factor exacerbates the issue of E-Waste – Planned Obsolescence. This is the well documented fact that some of the world’s biggest companies have been selling products either knowing full well that they will only last a couple of years or having deliberately built a short lifespan into the item or its software. As an example, in the US – Apple paid millions to users related to allegations that software updates caused older iPhones – such as the iPhone 6, 6s Plus, 7 and 7 Plus – to slow down.

This is perhaps why the average time an individual keeps a smartphone is reckoned to be between two and three years. Astonishingly, according to EU research, the average lifetime of desktop printers is a mere five hours and four minutes of actual printing time. This is simply scandalous. However, a push back movement is developing – see link below on the “Right To Repair” movement.

While the overall damage done to the environment from all the unrecycled waste may be incalculable, the message from the Global Waste report was conclusive: “The way in which we produce, consume and dispose of e-waste is unsustainable.”

IS IT WORTH IT?

One wonders – where is all this headed? Even though we managed in the past, there is no doubt our world can no longer function without the internet and the associated technology. It allows people to be connected globally, it allows much better access to education, it allows rapid processing of data and an unprecedented ability for predictive science. Data storage and retrieval is many orders of magnitude better than before such digital powers were commonplace.

But in my view – and shared by many evaluating society — it is TOO MUCH. Do we need technology to open and close our curtains, to track the ‘best before’ dates of food in our fridges or to continuously monitor our back yards with a video cam? Do we need to see what our friends are having for dinner or watch silly pet videos or teenagers dancing in what should be their private spaces? Even more detrimental is the accelerated spread of misinformation and disinformation. I firmly believe that without the nonsense on Facebook etc., there would be much less resistance to the safe and effective CoVid vaccines.

Digital technologies have given rise to a new machine-based civilization that is increasingly linked to a growing number of social and political maladies. Accountability is weak and insecurity is endemic, creating disturbing opportunities for exploitation. Moreover, society is well entrenched in an era of surveillance capitalism. The companies at the core of the social media revolution — Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the like — vacuum up our personal data turning us into products for sale.


THE ANSWER – A BIG RESET: The manufacture, use and disposal of technology products is unstainable. Moreover, the benefits to society are being offset by many detrimental aspects. I believe that less is more. A great reset is needed to restore the initial intention of the internet. There is a very definite need for this massive industry to be much better regulated in all ways. Ron Deibert is Chair of the “The Citizen Lab”, an interdisciplinary laboratory based at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. I agree with this conclusion in a CBC article about his research “In order to combat authoritarian practices, environmental degradation, and rampant electronic consumerism, Deibert urges restraints on tech platforms and governments to reclaim the internet for civil society” (see link below to Ron Deibert’s book).

https://www.myclimate.org/information/faq/faq-detail/what-is-a-digital-carbon-footprint/

https://www.army.mil/article/227715/an_elemental_issue

https://globalewaste.org/publications/

https://www.cbc.ca/news/science/global-ewaste-monitor-2020-1.5634759

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/mar/02/apple-iphone-slow-throttling-lawsuit-settlement

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/23/climate/right-to-repair.html

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/apr/15/the-right-to-repair-planned-obsolescence-electronic-waste-mountain

THE FASHION INDUSTRY’S DIRTY SECRET

FOOTPRINTS – By the numbers. The next few articles I will address the environmental impact (or FOOTPRINT) of some of our normal, everyday lives – buying and laundering clothes, our digital world, food production and consumption, and water use. Some of the numbers are astounding but we cannot address what we do not know. I’ll start with the fashion industry.

THE FASHION INDUSTRY’S DIRTY SECRET

BY Allan Maynard, MSc. 

OK – I know this article will not be very popular with some readers. Who does not like a little ‘retail therapy’ – a family shopping outing, touring the shops after dinner when travelling, and now, even more alluring – shopping on-line? One click – and a few days later a package arrives. And if it does not fit, we can send it back to an uncertain destiny. While I detest shopping for the most part, I also have enjoyed buying new clothes. 

But behind the glamorous ads and the alluring clothing boutiques, the garment industry has a dirty secret. I acknowledge that the title of this article is based on a highly recommended documentary produced by BBC entitled “FASHION’S DIRTY SECRETS” – see link at the end of this article. 

WHAT ARE CLOTHES MADE FROM

Clothes today are made from a wide range of different materials. Traditional materials such as cotton, linen and leather are still sourced from plants and animals. But most clothes are more likely to be made of materials and chemicals derived from fossil fuel-based crude oil – including polyester, nylon, acrylic, spandex, etc.). See figure below (note – cellulosics refers to wood-based fibers such as rayon and bamboo): 

BY THE NUMBERS 

There is an oft-cited factoid that “fashion is the second most polluting industry on the planet.”  It is difficult though to find actual proof of this and it depends greatly on the exact definition of “polluting”. It does not matter. The numbers are staggering. Here are some – not all:

  • 10% of global greenhouse emissions (CO2 and methane) come from the garment industry – more than from all air flights and shipping combined.
  • The clothing industry is the second largest consumer of water worldwide (1.5 trillion liters per year). This is especially alarming when considering that almost one-billion people do not have access to reliable drinking water.
  • Example re: water use – it takes 8,000 litres of water to create one pair of jeans / 3000 litres for one T-shirt/ 20,000 litres to make one kg of cotton.
  • Over 20% of all chemicals produced globally are used in the textile and apparel industries – as clothing fibers but also in clothing manufacturing (tanning, dyeing, bleaching, and wet processing).
  • All in all, the fashion industry is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution worldwide.
  • Only a small percentage of clothing that is no longer wanted by the purchaser is in turn donated or recycled. The rest goes to landfills. About 6% of waste in landfills comes from discarded clothing. The equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second.
  • Every time we wash a synthetic garment around 2000 microfibers are released into the environment – resulting in an estimated 500,000 tons of microfibers entering the oceans per year. (see related article in this site on micro- and nano plastics).
  • Overall, microplastics are estimated to compose up to 31% of plastic pollution in the ocean.
  • On average, people bought 60% more garments in 2014 than they did in 2000 but only kept these clothes for half as long. The main culprit is FAST FASHION – see comments below. 

THE ARAL SEA

The Aral Sea crisis provides a very clear example of the impact of the garment industry. The Aral Sea, once considered the 4th largest lake in the world, is situated between Kazakhstan in the north and Uzbekistan in the south. It began shrinking in the 1960s and had largely dried (shrunk by more than 90% of its 1960 size) up by the 2010s. The reason — In the 1960s, the Soviet Union undertook a major water diversion project on the arid plains of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. The region’s two major rivers, fed by snowmelt and precipitation in faraway mountains, were used to transform the desert into farms mainly to grow cotton. This outcome is considered one of the world’s most significant ecological disasters

The Aral sea has shrunk by more than 90% of its size since 1960.

THE MOST POLLUTED RIVER IN THE WORLD

The Citarum River on the island of Java (Indonesia) is considered the most polluted river in the world. Every day, no less than 20,000 tons of waste and 340,000 tons of wastewater, mostly from 2,000 textile factories, are discharged into the once clear and pristine waterways. I saw this for myself as my company had a laboratory in Indonesia. Its surface is completely covered by an unimaginable amount of waste and trash. And yet, the Citarum River is vital for the 25 million people who daily depend on it for agriculture, water, and electricity. It is a shocking demonstration of the unchecked and poorly managed textile industry producing many familiar brands available all around the world. 

The Citarum River – receives mostly untreated waste from over 2000 textile factories

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

Basically, the fashion industry is a clear example of global environmental injustice. With the rise of globalization and growth of a global economy, supply chains have become international, shifting the growth of fibers, the manufacturing of textiles, and the construction of garments to areas with cheaper labour. Out of sight – out of mind – but the human and environmental health risks associated especially with inexpensive clothing, are hidden throughout the lifecycle of each garment. From the growth of water-intensive cotton to the release of untreated dyes into local water sources, to workers’ low wages and poor working conditions; the environmental and social costs involved in textile manufacturing are widespread. 

From my viewpoint – this is an international trade issue requiring some kind of global undertaking – An ecotax? Trade embargos against offending countries? International standards around sustainability? 

As consumers – we can demand responsible clothing production, but most won’t do that. We can also buy less. I know – easier said than done. People love to shop. But do we really need FAST FASHION? Fast fashion is a term used to describe the readily available, inexpensively made fashion of today. The word “fast” describes how quickly retailers can move designs from the catwalk to stores, keeping pace with constant demand for more and different styles. Fast fashion is especially appallingly irresponsible. 

A few suggestions that should at least make us feel less powerless:

  • Check the labels – and try to buy clothing made from natural fibers grown sustainably. Or even better – from recycled fibers. 
  • If possible, buy high quality clothes that will last longer. This is a challenge though for many in this world who cannot afford this option. 
  • Buy less clothing – and keep the clothing in use longer. I still have a few T-shirts from the 1990s – old favourites.
  • Recycle unwanted clothing – via charities. It is my understanding that charities sell what they can from clothing donations and send the rest to fiber recycling operations.
  • Launder less – OK – I am no expert on laundry, but I would guess that many households launder clothing too frequently. Younger children can present a challenge in this regard. From my own experience and in talking to other parents and grandparents, young people often find it easier to place clothing just worn into a laundry bin rather than folding them up and wearing them a number of times more. Apparently – the recommendation for jeans is at least 6 wears before laundering. That suits me!

Many clothing brands claim to be addressing this issue with sustainability claims. Some are even producing clothes that need less laundering. We need to support those that can demonstrate sustainability. 

OK – now I need to go out and buy a new golf shirt. I better make sure I follow my own advice. Here’s one – organic cotton. I am not sure about the pants though. I would have to launder them too frequently. 

https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1459009091541

https://www.commonobjective.co/article/what-are-our-clothes-made-from

http://www.columbia.edu/~tmt2120/environmental%20impacts.htm

https://environmentmatters.ca/2020/11/30/micro-plastics-the-hidden-consequence-of-plastics-use/

http://www.columbia.edu/~tmt2120/introduction.htm

https://theconversation.com/humans-drained-the-aral-sea-once-before-but-there-are-no-free-refills-this-time-round-32513

https://thediplomat.com/2018/04/indonesias-citarum-the-worlds-most-polluted-river/

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/mar/31/less-laundry-less-often-how-to-lighten-the-washday-load-on-the-environment