Pollution of new technologies: IT, internet, hi-tech ...

Complete and synthetic file on the environmental impact of new technologies

High-tech pollution

The development of the digital society leads to overconsumption of energy and a constant increase in products, materials… and electronic waste. The governments and the industrialists begin to take the measure of the ecological cost of the new economy and act timidly. But, for the moment, it is the emerging countries and their inhabitants who are paying the price, at the risk of their environment and their health.

The visible and invisible pollution

According to the latest projections from Forrester, a billion personal computers (PCs) will be in service in the world in 2008 and more than two billion by 2015. But what do we do with these mountains of screens, of central units, keyboards, printers and peripherals of all kinds when they are obsolete or out of order?

Between 20 to 50 million tonnes of e-waste accumulates in the world and this volume is growing by 3 to 5% per year, according to a United Nations study in 2005. In France, we are currently producing on average 25 kg of WEEE (waste from electrical and electronic equipment) per year and per person. And of these 25 kg, 8% - or less than 2 kg - pass through a collection channel and then possibly recycling for a quarter of them.

In Europe, according to a report from the European Union, nearly 36 tonnes of mercury and 16 tonnes of cadmium are thus released into the atmosphere each year, mainly due to the incineration of WEEE.

However, this is only the tip of the iceberg. The increase in the computer park also induces an energy cost, and therefore environmental, more and more high. As the number of personal computers grows, the amount of electricity needed to power them increases mechanically.
But besides these devices, the Internet infrastructure itself drains a large amount of energy resources. Estimated at 123 terawatt hours in 2005, the electricity consumption of all servers in the world is equivalent to the production of about fifteen nuclear power plants.
Backed by cheap, but low-quality and inefficient servers, the Internet contributes to an energy bill of more than 5 billion euros per year, estimates Jonathan Koomey, a Stanford scholar. Between 2000 and 2005, the global consumption of these servers more than doubled. Such an increase is all the more problematic as it does not include the number of servers of large companies, such as Google, which is very discreet about the capacity of its infrastructures.

Emerging countries, garbage cans of the West

Recycling e-waste is complex and requires the handling of components harmful to health and the environment. It is little or not profitable and dangerous. It is therefore "quite naturally" that developed countries send their waste to emerging countries, turning a blind eye to the methods used locally.
Large-scale pollution linked to this industry affects Asia and Africa. The Basel Action Network (BAN) lists the discharges, the channels and more generally all the abuses in terms of electrical and electronic pollution. According to him, and by way of example, more than 500 containers of used computer equipment are unloaded each month in Nigeria to be repaired and reused. But nearly three-quarters of each cargo is found to be unusable and is carelessly destroyed or, worse, left in large dumps. Toxics Alert estimated in a report published in 2004 that 70% of WEEE landfilled in New Delhi came from exports from industrialized countries.

The methods used in poor countries to reprocess this waste are very rudimentary and the repercussions on the health of the populations and the environment heavy. Water is the main vector of this pollution. In China, a water sample taken from the Lianjiang River, near a recycling site, revealed lead levels 2 times higher than the standards recommended by the WHO (World Health Organization).
The awareness of the polluting states - the developed countries - has been slow but a legislative arsenal has emerged: the Basel Convention, which prohibits any export of dangerous products between the signatory countries, entered into force in 1992. recycling, the regulation came later. A European directive known as WEEE (waste of electrical and electronic equipment), voted in 2003, has been applied at European level since August 2005. At the same time, another European directive known as RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) aimed at controlling the use of hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment has been adopted.
At present, this legislative device is operational in Europe and most of the developed countries are following suit. Recovery and recycling channels are being put in place and are everyone's business: manufacturers and distributors are now required to respect them. But it is clear that a majority of the states concerned continue to send their e-waste to emerging countries, sometimes in the form of donations to circumvent the law.

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Disparate "green" initiatives

Having become concerned about questions relating to the environment - or their image - IT companies are investing more and more in the reprocessing of hazardous materials. Challenged by the Greenpeace association, which regularly publishes a Guide for responsible high-tech, Apple, for example, has undertaken to become “greener” and to show more transparency in its recycling procedures.

Large industrial groups are also trying to promote measures to reduce the energy consumption of computers. Gathered in the Climate Savers Computing Initiative, major players like Microsoft, AMD, Lenovo and IBM, and more recently Google and Intel, work in agreement with the environmental organization World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and 25 other associations .
Computer and component manufacturers participating in this initiative are committed to developing energy-efficient products that meet the technical requirements of the EPA, the US Federal Environmental Agency. The other companies which adhere to this initiative will equip themselves with more economical computers. They hope to save 5,5 billion dollars in energy costs per year and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 54 million tonnes per year.
The infrastructure of the Internet network, made up of tens of millions of servers, is also tending towards a significant drop in its electricity consumption. More and more manufacturers are offering virtual servers, which are gradually replacing the rows, cabinets and bays of very energy-intensive servers. Other companies are trying to democratize so-called “low consumption” servers.
Will these disparate initiatives be enough? Do the proliferation of e-waste and the pollution generated by new technology industries require the development of an IT “Kyoto protocol”?

Jim Puckett: "European legislation is the most advanced, but it has flaws"

What do you think of the directives on e-waste applied at European and international level?

European legislation is the most advanced in terms of electronic waste management, but it presents several flaws that some hasten to exploit. If there is a principle according to which the manufacturer is obliged to recycle his products, no one indicates how and where they should be. It is finally possible to empty the backfill in France, to fill the landfills in Nigeria or China.
Moreover, if the exporters declare that their load contains equipment intended to be reused, that is no longer considered as “waste”, but as “products”, which escape the regulation of the transport of waste. This is a big lie: about 75% of the material we have been able to identify in Nigeria is simply landfilled and then burned.
Which directives have the most impact on “informal” discharges from emerging countries?
The three main measures in this area are important, but they must be properly implemented. Regulation of waste transport is the most important law, if properly enforced. Consumers and manufacturers are encouraged to resolve the problem upstream, and not to export their waste. In addition, the ROHS directive (Restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances) can also have a lot of impact, provided that the list of so-called “dangerous” substances is extended. to prevent exemptions. Finally, if the directive on WEEE (Waste of electrical and electronic equipment), which currently affects only consumers, is amended to seek the responsibility of the producer, it will also become an important lever.
Have you noticed a decrease or increase in waste since the establishment of international guidelines?
Nothing has really improved: this is mainly due to the lack of firmness in enforcement in Europe, and the absence of any legislation in the United States. A law on computer waste is more effective in exporting countries than in importing countries.
Are there any awareness of emerging countries on sanitary and environmental conditions such reprocessors?
There is little that emerging countries can do. China has tried to reduce the inflow of waste and improve the conditions for reprocessing, but the informal dirty recycling market is growing, because of global trade which is very difficult to control. For China, this is not a technical issue: quality recycling companies cannot compete with the informal market. The only way to stop this cycle is to promote the Bale Convention, and its diligent application.

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The lowlands of the Web

Chat via instant messaging, play online games or simply surf the Internet are now common activities for web users. The speeds are always higher and the exchanges of files more numerous on the highways of information, whereas these give the illusion of dematerialization.
However, on the other side of the screens of Internet users, a heavy infrastructure underlies the Web. The byte, the computer unit of measurement, has indeed an energy equivalent, one of the highest. Estimated at 123 terawatt hours per year, the world electricity consumption of servers represents 0,8% of total electricity consumption (16 terawatt hours per year), the equivalent of about fifteen nuclear power plants.
The United States alone absorb a third of this consumption (45 terawatt-hours per year). Jonathan Koomey, a Stanford scholar, has calculated that such an energy bill amounts to 5,3 billion euros per year (7,2 billion dollars).
According to its study published in February 2007, server consumption has doubled in five years. In 2000, global servers were using less than 60 terawatt hours per year. Mr. Koomey's report is all the more alarming as it does not include the servers used by Google. The American company, very obscure about its infrastructure, has never released data on its storage capacities. According to a June 2006 article published in the New York Times, Google has more than 450 servers, distributed in around twenty technical centers.
Strong demand is the main cause of such an energy outbid. Developed countries, members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), increasingly plebiscite broadband. With more than 58 million subscribers, the United States is the largest market, in absolute terms, followed by Japan and South Korea. But it is in the countries of northern Europe that the equipment rate is highest. In Denmark, the Netherlands or Iceland, nearly one in three inhabitants has broadband, compared to one in five in France.
12,7 million French subscribers are thus connected at high speed, appearing in the top trio of the most connected European countries, behind the United Kingdom and Germany. Emerging digital countries such as China, whose Internet penetration rate is very low (10,4%, against nearly 70% in North America), will also sustainably increase demand.
Anxious to meet the expectations of their customers, manufacturers like HP or Dell offer servers at low prices, but inefficient. 90% of the IT infrastructure is thus made up of “volume servers”, the cheapest on the market. Masses in rooms, inefficient, they are only used 10% of their capacities. They also require extensive cooling systems, which contribute half of their electricity consumption. According to Mr. Koomey, their number has exploded in five years: in 2000, the world had 12 million "volume servers", against 26 million in 2005.
The next few years could see new trends emerge. In March 2007, the IDC institute reduced the forecast of server sales between 2005 and 2010 by 4,5 million units. Such a drop is partly to the benefit of so-called "virtual" servers, several of which can be hosted by a single physical server. In 2010, 1,7 million servers will be sold for virtualization, equivalent to the capacity of 8 million “real” servers. This will represent 14,6% of the volume of server capacity, against only 4,5% in 2005.
The main manufacturers have also embarked on a strategy of reducing consumption. While Sun relies on more efficient processors, its competitor, Hewlett-Packard, equips certain servers with energy-saving functions and more efficient fans.

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Since April, VIA, a Taiwanese manufacturer of integrated circuits, and Hewlett Packard have been marketing a low-power computer intended for the Chinese market. Why did you launch such a project? China is experiencing an increase in pollution and carbon dioxide emissions caused by rapid growth in industrial and commercial activities. This comes as the world begins to become more aware of the problems related to the environment and global warming, and takes positive steps to save energy and reduce the carbon footprint of human activities.

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