Thursday, March 17, 2011

Are gadgets inherently non-green

In the public eye the search for green living mainly concentrates on green energy. The picture the media paints is that once energy becomes cheap and cheerful, all our problems are solved. But is this true? Can we consume with abandon once energy becomes as green as the grass and as cheep as chips?

“No,” is what the bleak answer must be I think. Energy is just part of the equation. Another part of the equation is made up by rare earth elements. Now, the name of these elements is slightly misleading. They are not especially rare, just very hard to get at. In fact, some of these elements are pretty common in the earth’s crust. But to separate them from their surroundings is another matter.

It turns out that refining material to get at the rare earth elements is an environmentally hazardous process. Often these elements are found in ores that also contain mildly radioactive metals such as thorium and uranium. Hence the waste product of refining rare earth elements from these ores is mildly radioactive and thus harmful to the environment. Also, during the process of refining, toxic acids are used which need to be disposed off properly. And as is always the case with us humans, if there’s money to be made, some of it will be made illegally. Sadly these illegal refineries of rare earth elements tend to take the toxicity of the waste products slightly less seriously than they should.

On top of this, only a few countries produce large amounts of rare earth elements. The largest producer by far (nearly 100%) being China. And they have announced a restrictions on the export of the much wanted elements. So they are becoming rare for real now.

Apart from rare earth elements, the production of our beloved gadgets also has a huge impact on our habitat. To get a coveted game console from heap of parts to gleaming object d’amour in your living room means a huge amount of transportation, robots to power, chemicals to react, waste created and heat to generate and dissipate. So the amount of impact on the environment of the production of one gadget is much more than just the sum of its parts.

So unless we find a way to produce gadgets that use common elements that are readily available without harmful refining procedures and we are able to streamline the production process in such a way that there is no harmful waste and no energy loss I’m afraid the enjoyment of gadgets will remain a thoroughly non-green human hobby. No matter where the power to make them sing and dance in your home comes from.

1 comment:

  1. ive heard recently that this is a big problem with a lot of sources of "green" energy too. for example with wind turbines, it is more harmful to the environment to mine the metals required to build the magnets that produce the power than the wind turbine itself will ever make up for. so if there is going to be a technological solution to our energy problems, we will have to completely re-design the way we build and produce our technology..