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Environmental issues in the tech industry

From conflict minerals to e-waste, tech is riddled with environmental issues. 

This article looks at the environmental impacts at every stage in the lifecycle of our phone, laptop or computer. It discusses what brands are doing to address the issues and how to avoid these problems when buying.

What are the environmental issues with our tech?

Raw material extraction

The production of technology devices requires the extraction and processing of various natural resources, including rare metals like gold, silver, platinum, and tantalum. An average smartphone, for example, may contain over 60 different types of metals, as well as plastics and ceramics. Mining for these metals can lead to deforestation, pollution and habitat destruction.

‘Conflict minerals’ are amongst the most notorious ingredients in our laptops and phones. The term refers to three metals – tantalum, tungsten, and gold – which are essential components of circuit boards, batteries and other electronic parts.

Conflict minerals are often sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where over recent decades mines have been controlled by armed militia. This has led to severe human rights abuses and helped fund a devastating civil war in the country.

As well as humanitarian issues, conflict minerals are associated with serious environmental problems. Chemicals are used in washing tantalum ore, polluting water supplies, and harming people and animals. Mineral mining is also destroying ecosystems and affecting wildlife habitats. According to the Global Forest Watch platform, the DRC has lost 8.6% of its tree cover since 2000, partly due to mining.

Energy use and carbon footprint

Our technology comes with a carbon footprint attached. Emissions are produced at every stage of the life cycle, including resource extraction, manufacture, use and disposal.

For example, mobile phones are responsible for about 1% of all global emissions, according to carbon footprinting expert, Mike Berners Lee. The carbon footprint of a laptop is on average around 330 kg of CO2, which is equivalent to about 11 days of your total carbon footprint, or to a flight from London to Rome.

The carbon emissions from the production of your phone or laptop are known as its “embodied carbon footprint”. For pretty much all technology, this embodied footprint will be many times greater than the impacts from actual use.

Pie chart of carbon footprint of average laptop. Figures are in the main text.
Pie chart: carbon footprint from a year's use of a mid-range MacBook Pro. Data from Mike Berners-Lee's book 'How bad are Bananas?'. Image by Moonloft.

Typical carbon emissions of a laptop

For example, Mike Berners-Lee has calculated the emissions from a year's use of a mid-range MacBook Pro, if it lasts 4 years and is used on average for 3 hours each day. This works out as:

  • 2% electricity use
  • 15% network and data centres
  • 83% carbon embodied in the laptop

Hanging on to your technology for as long as possible is therefore the best way to reduce its footprint.

The embodied carbon footprint of a smartphone, for example, drops pretty drastically each year it is in use, as can be seen in the table below.

Embodied carbon footprint per year of a smartphone (based on iPhone 11):

If you keep it for 2 years If you keep it for 3 years If you keep it for 10 years
52.5 kg 35 kg 10.5 kg

Our technology guides include information on when to consider replacing – if ever – from the perspective of carbon emissions.

Designed for disposal

Technology is often designed to discourage repair. The back of mobile phones are often sealed, so that the battery can’t be replaced.

Often apps and software can’t be updated when the operating system is no longer supported.

Over the last decade, companies have faced court cases accusing them of this practice, known as “planned obsolescence”. Apple and Samsung were fined €10m and €5m respectively for deliberately slowing down smartphones in Italy in 2018. In 2020, Apple agreed to a settlement of up to $500 million for consumers in the US over similar concerns, although it denied any wrongdoing. A court case based on similar accusations has opened in France.

By designing technology in this way, companies encourage consumers to replace their technology every few years. This wastes huge amounts of resources, and pushes up emissions.


Every year we produce 57 million tonnes of electronic waste – more than the weight of the Great Wall of China - in discarded phones, laptops, televisions and other items. This figure is set to almost double by 2050.

Just 20% of this e-waste is properly collected and recycled. The rest predominantly ends up in landfill, or in informal ‘recycling’ operations in low-income countries.

Unwanted items are shipped from the Global North to countries in Africa and Asia. Some products might be repaired and sold for reuse, but much is taken to disposal sites where they are dismantled and harvested for reusable materials by workers.

Workers smash apart components or burn plastic off items to access the metal. This releases toxic substances into the soil, water supplies and air – leading to serious health problems for those exposed to the fumes.

Read more in our separate article on e-waste.

What can consumers do about tech and the environment?

There are are several actions consumers can take when looking at their use and purchase of technology. We outline some ideas below.

1. Buy second-hand

Around a third of people in the UK buy a new phone every one to two years – which means there is a massive market of good quality second-hand discards to choose from. If you buy second-hand, you reduce the carbon footprint of your phone, as well as the demand for raw materials and the amount of e-waste.

See our guide to buying second-hand technology for tips on what to look for and where to buy.

2. Repair your tech

The iFixit website is a great place for repair tutorials. It covers many models of phones, tablets and laptops. Some cities have repair cafes that can help you fix your tech. For example, the Restart Project runs workshops for the public on repairing electrical goods.

Your local tech-repair shop can often also mend phone screens and other items like computers or printers. And if you have an Apple product, you can take it into the store for help.

3. Buy more ethical brands

Ethical Consumer’s shopping guides rate and rank brands on their ethical and environmental record. We check all companies for their environmental reporting, emissions management and approach to toxic chemicals – helping you find the most eco-friendly options.

One of the biggest issues is the limited lifecycle of tech – the fact that it is produced and discarded in the space of a few short years. For the last decade, Fairphone has been by far and away the most active company in trying to tackle these harms.

The company sells modular phones, designed specifically for repair. This means that if any one part breaks, you can simply buy that part and fit it into your phone at home. The Fairphone website stocks everything from replacement cameras and batteries to USB ports.

Unfortunately, similar options don’t yet exist for laptops, televisions and other items.

4. Choose repairable options

You can reduce the environmental footprint of your tech by increasing its lifespan through repair. Thinking about this when you’re buying new tech can be useful. iFixit rates devices based on their repairability.

We’d also recommend choosing a modular phone from Fairphone, if you can afford it.

5. Invest

The lifespan of your tech tends to vary depending on cost. If you can afford it, it’s therefore worth investing when buying new. For example, if a laptop

  • costs under £500 its average lifespan is 2-4 years
  • costs between £500-£750 its average lifespan is 3-5 years
  • costs over £750 its average lifespan is 4-7 years.

By these costs, you would actually save money if you can afford to pay more upfront.

6. Recycle

If your electronics are still usable, sell them online using a platform like eBay, sell them to a specialist retailer like Cex, or else donate them to charity.

Even if unusable, electronics should never be thrown away, because they contain hazardous substances. Some retailers, such as Curry’s, provide free disposal services, and under law must accept goods that weren’t bought in the shop.

Otherwise, you can find your local recycling point on the Recycle Now website.

7. Borrow one-off electrical items

Some technical or electrical items are things you might only need a couple of times a year, like a power drill or hedge trimmer. For low use items you could borrow from a friend or neighbour, or check out any local lending schemes. There has been a huge rise in 'Libraries of things' in the last couple of years and our directory lists over 40, from Dundee to Devon.