Worldwide an estimated 21 million people are forced to work. There are incidences of trafficked or forced (bonded) labour in the electronics industry, notably in Asia.
Accidents, sometimes fatal, and respiratory and skin diseases from exposure to hazardous particles in the air, are major concerns for those working in mines. There is also a high incidence of child labour in the sector and of migrant workers, who are especially vulnerable to exploitation.
Workers in electronics manufacturing can be exposed to life-threatening occupational diseases, often earn too little to live on, may experience forced overtime and often have no access to grievance procedures. Migrant workers and students are especially vulnerable to abuse.
Energy and emissions
The manufacturing stage, including greenhouse gas emissions from the energy used in manufacturing as well as increased use of chemicals and raw materials, makes up a substantial part of a device’s impact on the environment. Shorter life cycles for electronics products increase these impacts; the energy impacts can only be partly offset by the greater energy efficiency of new devices during use.
Conflict minerals are minerals mined in conditions of armed conflict and human rights abuses, which are sold or traded by armed groups. This has for some years been a particular problem in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Armed groups on all sides of the conflict in Eastern Congo are benefiting from the mineral trade, using the money to purchase weapons and commit violence against civilians. The majority of these minerals end up in electronic devices such as mobile phones, portable music players and computers.
Mining and processing
Scarce and precious materials are essential to many of the electrical and electronic products we use every day. Throughout the 21st century mining for minerals/metals has displaced 100 million people and destroyed innumerable natural habitats. Mineral/metal extraction often leads to landscape damage, heavy metal pollution, and can adversely affect the livelihoods of local people, especially in developing countries where environmental regulations and human rights protection are weak or non-existent. Local communities may experience loss of livelihoods by the change in land use, they may be relocated away from a traditional means of living, be impacted by mining operations in terms of noise, and air, water and soil pollution, as well as the destruction of local habitats. They may have their access to basic services such as health and education restricted by an influx of migrant workers. Water plays a key role in metal/mineral extraction and processing and is a vital resource for local communities; river and groundwater use as well as the disposal of water containing metals/minerals needs to be carefully monitored.
Components in electronic products may contain heavy metals and hazardous chemicals. Substituting harmful chemicals in the production of electronics prevents worker exposure to these substances and contamination of communities near production facilities. Eliminating harmful substances also prevents leaching/off-gassing of chemicals such as brominated flame retardants (BFRs) during use, and enables electronic scrap to be more safely recycled. Toxic substances are released during the reprocessing of e-waste and lead to the contamination of secondary materials that are used to make new products.
Products must be designed with a circular economy in mind, as an alternative to a traditional linear model, whereby resources are kept in use for as long as possible and are then recovered at the end of each product's life. Many of the environmental impacts associated with electronics are exacerbated by the increasingly short life cycles of products. For example, shorter life-cycles lead to larger quantities of e-waste as consumers update their systems for the latest technological innovations. Electrical devices and appliances must be made to last, taking into account design, materials and user guidance. To optimise use of the ‘embodied’ energy in a product, a product should have a long lifetime (have a robust and durable design), be repairable and where relevant contain software-upgradable components. Products should also incorporate recycled, renewable and recyclable materials. The energy-efficiency of electrical goods is also key way to reduce a product’s overall lifecycle emissions.
Companies can do much more than just comply with waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) regulations on responsible disposal. Re-selling or leasing pre-owned consumer electronics is better than dismantling them for recycling. Repairing and manufacturing i.e. reusing devices and their components, is also a better use of resources than recycling them.
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