What Are Sustainable Electronics?
Consumer waste has become a huge talking point in the 21st century. Electronic waste, measuring in the hundreds of millions of metric tons, hasn’t been properly recycled. During the rapid innovation over the last fifty years, many companies have focused more on how much growth instead of how the growth happens.
Think about how many electronics you own (your phones, laptops, cables). Now, think about how many devices you’ve purchased, owned, and discarded over the last ten years. If you multiply that number by billions, you begin to comprehend the magnitude of our consumer waste problem.
What’s being done about consumer waste?
Some companies, including Acer, have started to think more consciously about the environment recently. These companies are pioneering efforts to bring sustainably produced electronics to the forefront of how we do business. With more companies producing in this manner, the future looks bright. In May of 2022, Acer hosted its annual Global Press Conference and revealed its plans for the future with a heavy emphasis on the environment.
What are sustainable electronics?
Sustainable electronics are those that are produced using more sustainable methods. This results in less damage to the environment during production, fewer electronics (and their components) that end up redundant and discarded in landfills (or in nature), and less of a toxic load from the various hazardous chemicals housed within these electronics. Put simply, sustainable electronics have been created in a way that allows us to keep creating the products in a more eco-friendly way in the face of resources on our planet being finite.
As in other industries, the need for sustainability has boomed recently. But unlike sustainable fashion or sustainable farming practices, the popularity and output of electronics that are meant to last and have less of a negative impact on the environment have lagged. Why? Because everyone wants the newest gadgets and companies are happy to see their profits rise while they accommodate that.
What does a sustainable electronic device look like?
Though there are no set guidelines that define exactly what a sustainable electronic device is, there are some ways in which we can measure the sustainability of our next electronics purchase. To understand where your next phone or laptop stands on the sustainability scale, you need to consider:
- What kind of impact does its production cause on the environment?
- Is it designed in a long-lasting, eco-friendly manner?
- Has it been designed to consume resources in the most eco-friendly way?
- Has it been produced using toxic elements (and has its production come at the expense of livelihood and safety of those in the communities where the materials are found)?
- What happens to the device when it’s time to “retire” it?
What kind of impact does its production cause on the environment?
Every aspect of the production of your beloved electronics requires resources. These resources demand energy consumption and with that energy consumption, a carbon footprint follows. The carbon footprint of a single factory producing a single device (or, a single component of a device) is incredible. We need more transparency into the production demands (carbon footprint) of companies producing electronics. That way, we can measure whatever damage is being done and make decisions accordingly.
Is it designed in a long-lasting, eco-friendly manner?
We measure the lifetime of an automobile in decades but measure the lifetime of a smartphone as two to three years. This short life cycle has a deleterious effect on the environment. Whether this is part of a business model or just a result of fast-moving innovation is not clear. Previously, products were designed to be upgraded or repaired. This is not the case today. It’s important to look at how a device will stand up to innovation on one end and deterioration on the other so we can judge how sustainable it is.
Has it been designed to consume resources in the most eco-friendly way?
This question directly affects the end-user as well as the environment. To increase the net benefits to end-users and the environment, it’s important to consider how optimized the hardware is for energy efficiency and power management. It all adds up and the inefficiencies of electronics stack up to drain precious resources and add to the carbon footprint.
Has it been produced using toxic elements (and has its production come at the expense of livelihood and safety of those in the communities where the materials are found)?
In our pursuit of speed and convenience, humanity has made the mistake of using various harmful materials. Things like lead and mercury used to be staples in consumer products. Paint and thermometers come to mind. While many of these dangerous chemicals have been investigated and subsequently phased out, there is an abundance of toxic materials that find their way into our electronics. These are both harmful to humans and the environment. To combat this, Restriction of Hazardous Substances Compliance has been created, an initiative to ban companies from using specific hazardous materials.
Additionally, where raw materials come from now faces scrutiny. Many materials, similar to diamonds, come from regions of the world where their mining and exportation are suspected of causing social conflict, oppression, and armed conflict.
What happens to the device when it’s time to “retire” it?
Can your device be upgraded or repaired to stay useful? If not, can it be properly recycled? Whether or not these hesitations can be properly surpassed comes down to a few guidelines:
- The manufacturer used sustainable raw materials
- The manufacturer used biodegradable raw materials
- The components can be recycled for the creation of other products
What certifications help us understand what’s sustainable and what’s not?
Many aren’t privy to the information needed to gauge the criteria mentioned above. We need a simpler way to make sustainable purchasing decisions. To solve this, consumers can look for the following certifications:
Energy Star: This certification, developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy, helps measure and encourage energy efficiency in various products like electronics and appliances.
Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT): This certification offers a 3rd party verification of the sustainability of a product by measuring its energy efficiency, longevity, the level of hazardous materials it contains, and what can be done with the product when it needs to be disposed of.
GREENGUARD: This certification focuses on the hazardous byproducts of our building materials, electronics, and cleaning products to measure and reduce indoor air pollution.
What is Acer doing to solve this crisis?
Acer has launched a new initiative to be part of the solution to the unsustainability epidemic. Acer’s Earthion initiative is their dedication to tackling our environmental challenges through innovative and integrated solutions. Earthion aims to provide excellent products with decisions aimed at sustainability at every step of the way: product design, production, energy, logistics, package design, and recycling of products.
View the full mission statement here.
Acer pledges, through Earthion, several admirable benchmarks such as an 80% carbon reduction by 2050 and reaching 100% renewable energy sources by 2035.
Acer’s line of eco-friendly products, Acer Vero, continues to expand. From production to recycling, sustainability is their number one priority. This product line, including laptops, monitors, and more, focuses on recycled materials for environmental harm reduction, energy effectiveness, and easy upgrade capabilities to reduce the “throwaway” culture prevalent in electronics. Additionally, Acer Vero products feature the capabilities you’d expect from a high-performance Acer product.
The future of sustainable electronics
Despite efforts by many companies, we still have a long way to go toward sustainability in electronics. We must face some of the harsher realities, even if we’re currently making progress.
Most of the damage done is caused during the phase where the consumer has no control: the production phase. Carbon emissions are astounding. Your digital device may be designed to become outdated. The incentive structures in place encourage companies to create something that needs to be replaced after a set number of years. Additionally, repairing your consumer electronics has become an outdated practice. “Just get a new one” is the default reaction to a malfunctioning or lagging device. With few companies willing to be truly transparent, these issues will continue to be problematic.
That said, the “customer is always right.” As more consumers demand sustainable practices, more businesses are incentivized to follow environmentally friendly production methods. This demand has innovated an entirely new business model: appealing to those who demand sustainability. While it may take some years to see this model in its mature stage, it's clear that the competitive edge desired by many companies will help move us toward a much more sustainable future.
Patrick Yu is a Senior Project Manager at Level Interactive and has 8 years of experience writing business, legal, lifestyle, gaming, and technology articles. He is a significant contributor to Acer Corner and is currently based in Taipei, Taiwan.