Worldwide, over 54 million tons of electrical appliances and devices are discarded each year – about 7 kg per person. Although not all of this e-waste consists of digital devices, the vast amount of them strikingly demonstrates the material repercussions of digitalization.

The material side of digitalization

Not only are we throwing away more and more smartphones, laptops, and monitors – completely different products such as coffee machines are likewise landing in the trash more quickly as a result of digitalization. The trend toward “smart” things that are controlled by software and connected to the internet is now also making inroads in the kitchen and the children’s room, in the workshop and on the street. We are witnessing with increasing frequency how microchips built into everyday objects create not only greater convenience but also new sources for error and dependency. The exchange of data with the internet entails security risks that must be continuously contained by software updates. As soon as the built-in electronics no longer meet the requirements of a new software version, fully functional devices become obsolete. The same happens when a manufacturer decides to stop offering security updates.

Although digital electronics are subject to little wear and tear from a technical standpoint, and computer programs are as intangible as novels or musical scores, economic patterns of hardware and software use have emerged that result in growing consumption of valuable raw materials. These resources are only recovered today to a small extent through recycling. In Switzerland, 65% of e-waste is recycled, while in EU countries the amount is less than 50% and in most other countries even lower.

Schweizer Elektroschrott 2021 c Museum fur Gestaltung Zurich
Schweizer Elektroschrott 2021 c Museum fur Gestaltung Zurich 2
Schweizer Elektroschrott 2021 c Museum fur Gestaltung Zurich 3

Swiss electronic garbage, 2021, © Museum für Gestaltung Zürich

In addition to raw materials, the production of microchips also requires a great deal of energy. Most private end devices such as smartphones, laptops, printers, etc. consume more electrical energy for their production than they will during their relatively short useful lives. Because a high proportion of electricity in the production countries comes from coal-fired power plants, the carbon footprint of these devices stems largely from their production

Collaborators E-Waste

Prof. Dr. Lorenz Hilty, Informatics and Sustainability Research, UZH

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