bRIC With a Small ‘b’: Rethinking Business Models for the Emerging Middle Class

Screen shot 2013-01-01 at 08.03.36

Go home Michael, the party’s been cancelled.

Whilst Brazil’s economy boomed up to 2010, it has dramatically slowed. There’s a need for a new economic growth model.

In 2012 Brazil overtook the UK as the world’s 6th largest economy, moving closer to meeting the expectations set by the novelist Stefan Zweig in 1942, when he said that “Brazil is the country of the future”.

Unfortunately it seems that Brazil has slipped back a few paces, as the UK economy resumes its place in world rankings ahead of the South American nation, much to the dismay of a proud, nationalist country that likes to celebrate occasions: “We have to go back to being the ‘country of the future’ “, says Marcos Troyjo, director of the BRICLab at Columbia University in his guest blog for the FT.

A model driven by consumption

The love for celebration is strongly expressed in a very consumerist society. Brazil’s GDP grew by 8% in 2010, its fastest growth rate in over 25 years (Euromonitor International, 2012), reducing unemployment and boosting household disposable income (Accenture, 2011). Yet GDP growth has been volatile, dropping to 2% in 2012 , and is expected to remain under 2% until 2013.

Economists attribute the past growth in the Brazilian economy mainly to:

i) policies and a culture that favours consumption,

ii) easy access to personal credit,

iii) income distribution methods.

The combination of the above has resulted in a consumption boom. According to the marketing research agency Euromonitor, Brazilian consumers rank top four in almost all product categories. They are also marked by vanity, as an Accenture study revealed that

“72% of 8000 consumers [interviewed] that the electronics brand they own is important to be perceived as most innovative.”

Rising domestic consumption has been the main driver in lifting Brazil into the ranks of a middle class economy, which now makes up 60% of the population.

This shift was spurred on by social and economic policies targeting social inequality from Lula’s government that helped 30 million people move up from the lowest socio-economic bands between 2003 and 2010.

The Family Grant (Bolsa Família) and growth in the minimum wage are key policies that have increased Brazilian consumer spending power. In addition, increase in credit access and rising incomes boosted domestic consumption, increasing consumer confidence and spending.

But is this growth model also limited by consumption? 

But now, in 2013, it seems that the boom as been cancelled – at least until 2015 (the World Cup and Olympics are sure to give a helping hand, however temporary and despite Michael Palin’s visit).

As an emerging economy struggling to develop a stable, strong economy, it seems that the

“the old consumption-led model of development is now less likely to deliver impressive rates of growth that it has done in the past.”

Neil Shearing, Capital Economics

The rise in consumption has not been paralleled by a rise in productivity. During the same period, productivity increased 4% in China, whilst it grew by a mere 0.2% in Brazil.

And what’s more, the socio-economic benefits from the emerging middle class are questionable. Yes, 30 million people have been lifted out of poverty, but they are now heavily in debt, and inequality hasn’t decreased. Easy access to credit and a culture that encourages consumption has led to a ‘consumerisation’ of Brazilians. Debt has surged to represent 43% of a family’s income, limiting the economic sovereignty of Brazilians, and has developed a culture of material ownership that mirrors the USA.

I have had conversations with many Brazilians who would prefer to be stuck in a traffic jam for 2 hours than take the public transport, as they value the status gained from driving and owning a car. Almost all big-ticket items are paid for in 12, 24 and even 36 instalments over several years, often pulling families deeper into debt. The need to own is strong.

How fair is to to bring people into the middle class status when this burdens them with debt and is dependent on their consumption, therefore fuelling more debt? Additionally, lack of investment in public education has resulted in an elitist education system, benefiting those who can pay and locking those into poverty who can’t.

An ill-fitting business model

Screen shot 2012-12-31 at 22.00.26It would seem then that a consumer-dependent model was ill-fitting for this huge emerging middle class. A conversation I had with Alexandre Fernandes, Founder of EPEA Brasil, challenged conventional consumer business models: what if one could meet the needs of the emerging middle class by supplying products through a different ownership model?

He mentioned that Brazilians, once they can afford it, opt to buy a washing machine or dish washer, as this “frees up manual labour and time for leisure”. Yet there are long-term consequences when 30 million people buy and own a new washing machine. In a consumer society based on ownership, questions regarding the end-of-life are left unanswered, especially in a country like Brazil where over 80% of collected rubbish goes to landfill and less than 1% of all electronic waste is recycled (roughly 10,000 tonnes a year is collected for recycling).

As a result, electronic waste is landfilled and increases the risk of pollution, people are held ransom to consumption, resources are used inefficiently and, ultimately, middle class prosperity is falsely upheld.

We already know that UK and US lifestyles require the equivalent of three planets to support their needs, and that the planet’s resources are currently being overused by  25% (most management consultancies would cringe at this level of inefficiency in a business) and a consumption economy will further exacerbate these stresses. Is this really the dream, the lifestyle we want to ‘export’ to emerging economies?

Rethinking ownership: performance, quality and equality

So, let’s take a look at different model, one based on performance rather than ownership. Instead of 30 million people buying a washing machine, they buy into a service contract with a company, who owns the washing machine and retains customer loyalty through enhanced customer service and replacement. Competition is therefore not only led by cost, but also by customer service, performance and quality.

Companies retain ownership over resources, bringing down the need to exploit virgin resources, decreasing the rise in resources cost and limiting environmental damage by minimising waste. This type of business model requires reverse supply chains and generates new jobs in logistics, remanufacture, repair and distribution. Concerning job potential for reverse supply chains,

“Microsoft found that computer reuse creates 296 jobs for every 10,000 tons of material disposed of each year”

– United Nations Industrial Development Organisation, 2009

In comparison, incineration creates merely 20-40 jobs for 10,000 tonnes of material, whilst landfill a meagre total of 10 jobs (Huisman, Magalini et al. 2007).

The ownership model is steadily establishing itself, with classic and quality examples including Interface, Desso, Caterpillar, Spotify and Ricoh.

Consumption of electronics has risen rapidly in Brazil and is highest in the world as as a proportion of GDP. Globally, Brazil is the world’s fifth largest producer of computers (Oliveira et al., 2012) and the Brazilian industry electronics association ABINEE has estimated that in 10 years Brazil will be second globally in terms of purchase figures. There is a real opportunity to provide these goods in a way that lessens the burden on resources, waste and energy and that promotes economic activity.

As it happens, Brazil isn’t very good at promoting innovation. It tends to focus on innovating new processes within existing businesses, rather than innovating new goods. In fact, the most common form of innovation is copying ideas from the West, but adding a Brazilian flavour to it. What’s more, it is notoriously difficult and costly to set up a business, which doesn’t attract entrepreneurs and locks existing businesses into heavily bureaucratic structures.

Going forwards: the $200 billion opportunity

Screen shot 2013-01-01 at 08.36.55Brazil has the opportunity to tackle its economic slump and structural problems, known as Custo Brasil, by implementing policies that encourage business models based on performance, and improving environmental and social standards.

The opportunity within Brazil is huge, as the Carbon Trust recently issued a report that the Brazilian low carbon economy is worth $200 billion.

The question is whether Brazil can restructure its economy, and what key intervention points it can leverage to do so, which I’ll be taking a look at in my next blog post.

From Computer Case to Toaster: Re-imagining Design

Serendipitous recall

Serendipitous recall

Recently I’ve attended several events that have called upon the role of designers in steering us towards greater sustainability. As I leafed through my diary this A5 poster popped out, reminding me of some amazing design for sustainability I’d seen at the London Design Festival this autumn (more below).

A less enchanting thought also came to mind: our global electronics industry is a market failure blunder.

 And here are 8 reasons why (check out my previous blog posts for more detail):

  1. E-waste is the world’s fastest growing waste type.
  2. It is the most complex and toxic type of waste.
  3. Recycling rates for e-waste are shockingly low- about 90% of the world’s e-waste is not recycled.
  4. At least 75% of the world’s e-waste is exported to developing countries for ‘backyard’ recycling.
  5. Illegal e-waste recyclers in developing countries are subject to pollution and health hazards.
  6. Electronic goods are often replaced before their material end-of-life, due to market demand for innovation.
  7. The legal system for dealing with e-waste effectively remains immature.
  8. Developing countries lack appropriate recycling systems for e-waste, but simultaneously are driving global demand.

Broadly speaking, the electronics sector can be described as a ‘take-waste-dispose’ model (McKinsey & Company 2012). As the report Towards a Circular Economy states: “The ‘take-make-dispose’ model relies on large quantities of easily accessible resources and energy, and as such is increasingly unfit for the reality in which it operates”. Under “business as usual” circumstances, the issues listed above will be compounded by the growing demand for electronic goods from population growth: the global middle class is set to swell by 2 billion today, to 5 billion in 2030 (Pezzini, 2012).

Design: a key intervention point

There is a pressing need to decouple economic growth from the dependence on resources and the degradation of natural capital (Fischer-Kowalski & Swilling 2011). For long-term economic, social and environmental sustainability to flourish within the electronics sector, current production and consumption patterns cannot continue.

So imagine if we could produce a lightweight system of production that produces little waste, uses materials and energy efficiently and produces social value whilst limiting its damage to the environment.

This is exactly what designers at Degross have done, by designing “an easily disassembled computer case (no bolts, no screws and no glue were used) by using pre designed embedded parts within the hardware to assemble a second cycle product: a toaster in this example.”

C'est quoi? C'est le second cycle product computer/toaster hybrid shebang

C’est quoi? C’est le computer hardware that can be turned into a toaster. Boom.

Through intention, design can eliminate waste in the production of products. Principles such as design for remanufacture, reuse, or disassembly are being evolved but currently lack application in practice and research (Grey & Charter, 2007). These design principles allow for increased recovery of material at the product’s end-of-life, with the intention that it will be used in other production chains. The onus is on using high quality materials that can be cycled through various production cycles, and on using non-toxic biological materials that do not create pollution and facilitate disassembly (McKinsey & Company, 2012).

A practical example

Product design and business models determine to what extent a company’s operations and productions are contributing to a linear or circular economic model. A change in the design of products is needed in order to encourage more sustainable production, whilst a shift in business models will guide consumption towards more sustainable patterns.

Ricoh, a business to business provider of office equipment has a stated environmental policy with objectives to generate zero waste to landfill and engage in the recovery and recycling of its products (Ricoh, 2012). Applying a life cycle systems approach, Ricoh’s products are designed with end-of-life management and recovery in mind. Recycling is the final option, as maintenance, reuse of products and parts, and materials recovery are priority.

Ricoh's operational model. Source: Towards a Circular Economy, 2012.

Ricoh’s operational model. Source: Towards a Circular Economy, 2012.

Products and components are easily disassembled for component recovery, are lighter and more suitable for recycling. At the end-of-life, Ricoh’s toner cartridges can be used in the production of road traffic bollards, crab pots and garden planters. Ricoh’s Green-line machines are remanufactured to be used for a second cycle and produce 40% less carbon emissions over their life cycle. The company has developed expertise in reverse logistics, operations and energy efficiency and provides clients consultancy advice, helping them save 30% in energy costs and reduce their CO2 emissions.

This idea at a wider scale contributes to the development of a Circular Economy. This concept isn’t new, but has recently been brought to the fore by the amazing campaign efforts by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

I’ll be writing more on the opportunity to advance sustainability through the Circular Economy, particularly for developing countries.

The Energy Efficiency Revolution might lose out to our bad behaviour

With the recent launch of the iPhone 5, it is worth considering how the rocketing sales will affect energy consumption, as the figures are huge.

Within a week, Apple had sold five million mobile phones and within a year 170 million units will be sold. This year, it’s predicted that a whopping 567 million units of smartphones will be shipped and we’re set to reach the 1 billion mark by 2016

So what does this mean for energy use?

Powering the 170 million iPhones purchased this year will require the same amount of annual energy needed to power 54,000 homes in the USA. That’s about the size of Oxford, UK.

To power all the smartphones currently in global circulation requires the equivalent energy supplied to 162,000 households, which is slightly bigger than Birmingham, UK.

However not all is doom and gloom. There are some interesting trends arising where the smartphone is substituting the use of more energy-intensive gadgets like plasma TVs and computers. For a more detailed break down check out this article. The article concludes with the idea that with the rising tide of smartphones, we might be at the cusp of an energy efficient revolutionThis is a valid point, but the article omits an important factor: our behaviour.

Energy security and our bad behaviour

I  previously mentioned that the annual emissions of CO2 from the ICT industry is equal to that of the aviation industry. Yearly emissions of the ICT sector consume an estimated total of 700 TWh representing 15% of global residential electricity use.

The rise in electricity consumption is due to energy intensive behaviour of consumers and the increase in per capita ownership of electronic and digital appliances that consume more energy.

A study by Crosbie (2008) found that marketing encourages energy intensive behaviours, causing consumers to develop the following energy-intensive habits:

• Leaving appliances on standby;
• use of various appliances simultaneously by multiple users;
• replacing appliances at short intervals to acquire the latest technology.

These increases in energy demand surpass previous forecasts and provide new challenges and opportunities for energy security to policy makers. The International Energy Association has recommended that governments begin implementing policies to curb the effect of the growing energy demands from the ICT and consumer electronics sectors, which traditionally have received little attention from policy makers.

Cheeky stand-by mode

The use of standby mode of products currently accounts for 200-400TWh each year (remember that total energy consumption from use alone is 700TWh!). Typically, a television set, DVD or CD player wastes 50% of the energy it consumes whilst in standby mode.

Cheeky standy-by lights – lots of them!

The Energy Savings Trust estimated that if the entire UK population neglected using the standby mode, the total energy saved would be enough to power 2.7 million homes for a year.

The Energy Savings Trust also blamed the consumer for this bad behaviour. I tend to disagree and think this is a rather simple way of explaining the standy-by phenomenon.  Research has indicated that marketing, the operational functions of electronics and poor instructions mislead consumers who feel they are compelled to leave electronics on stand-by mode.

Evolving tech, evolving behaviour

So, whilst evolving technology is providing us with wins in terms of energy efficiency, our behaviour needs to evolve too so we don’t experience a rebound effect: where energy efficiency gains are cancelled out by our increase in the use of electronics “Oh, solar-powered? It’s totally kosher to leave it on stand-by now!”. Nope. When not in use, just turn those bad boys off.

Shut ’em down  (photo awkwardly taken in my house behind the chest of drawers)

The ICT industry makes aviation seem ok

I’m currently one week from submitting my thesis, hence the radio silence.

However, one of the most important facts I have learnt is that

the global CO2 output from the ICT industry is equal to that from the aviation industry (Green Server Design)

With cloud computing driving a shift in the technology market, more consumers will move towards consuming more software and ‘cloud data’. On the one hand, this is great news for sustainability as it dematerialises consumption, as the product transforms into a service. On the other, requires developing and building more data centres, that are currently run on mainly on fossil fuels and have hefty environmental impacts. These are set to be compounded by the spreading of technology as the global middle class swells.

Discussing sustainability in technology is a complex issue, as the above conundrum demonstrates. A practical way to assess solution, is by thinking systemically: a shift to cloud computing would complement and benefit from a shift towards renewable energy, and replacing the subsidies for fossil fuels with taxes.

Update on resource conflicts

Following my last post on 21st century gold rushes and growing tensions regarding geopolitics, I am somewhat pleased to announce that China has in fact increased its quota to export rare earth minerals.

The act follows some hefty complaining from the USA, the EU and Japan, who filed a trade complaint to the World Trade Organisation

An article from the Wall Street Journal, however, explains how this move is somewhat vacuous, given that demand for Chinese rare earth metals fell this year.

It’s possible to predict that this move will merely “buy us more time” for now, given that China’s rare earth metals are finite and our demand for them is infinite.

As I pointed out in the last blog post, continuous mining won’t solve the problem of depleting natural resources, and the challenge lies in decoupling this trend from economic growth. My next blog post will look at the principles of the Circular Economy and how it can be employed as a strategy to solve this very conundrum.

A glimpse of future conflicts? The modern gold rush

The high content of rare materials within electrical and electronic devices demonstrates a rising problem of resource scarcity and geopolitics. Consumption of electronics is on a high, and is set to grow exponentially as more consumers join the ranks of the middle class.

In 2007 the combined sales of mobile phones and personal computers represented 3% of global supply of silver and gold, 13% of palladium and 15% of copper.

A PwC report highlighted the growing demand and consumption of these materials as one of the most important drivers for resource scarcity. The same report by PwC highlighted the importance of minerals and metals scarcity as a top priority for 78% of business executives from the high-tech industry.

Geopolitics also plays an important role, as the risk is that resource nationalism becomes self-fueling, and that concerns about the security of supply translate into increased protectionism, less integrated resource markets, and therefore increased uncertainty over price volatility and supply.

China is largely responsible for mining the 17 rare earth metals used to fuel our digital economy. Since announcing that it would export less of these, this has raised many European eyebrows and shifted glances towards Greenland. Unfortunately for the EU, it is completely dependent on imports for 14 out of 17 minerals known as “rare earths”. With thawing of Greenland ice famously underway, European politicians are keen on getting ahead of Chinese competition. Mining has harmful social and environmental consequences if not appropriately regulated. Unfortunately for Greenland, the policies and the regulation framework are largely not in place or appropriately developed yet. Greenland currently lacks the ability to control the behaviour of mining companies, if several were to being operating soon.

Forget Greenland, landfills are the mines of the future

As a quick reminder, there is more gold in a tonne of discarded mobile phones than a tonne of gold mine ore. Mining new materials is a strategy, but it’s an archaic strategy. A more long-term approach to resource security might be to close the loop on materials flow and change our unsustainable patterns of production and consumption. For instance, is it sustainable to own 2 mobile phones and replace them every 2 years, whilst not disposing of them correctly?

Regarding electronics, this means getting consumers to dig out the mobile phones they’ve left to dust in drawers and return it to producers, to extract the copper, palladium, gold and other rare earth metals. The EU has already legislated as the Extended Producer Responsiblity under the European WEEE Directive.

Excitingly, Brazil introduced its first national law on solid waste that obliges reverse supply chains to be created for electronics. What’s interesting, unlike the EU where the onus is on the producer to bring the product back to the manufacturer, in Brazil everyone is responsible: the consumer, the retailer, the distributor and the producer. This shared responsibility is set to mobilise hundreds of electronics back to the original manufacturer, where it will be recycled and disposed of correctly.

However, this is for future production. Last year 1.6 billion new phones were introduced into the global market. What’s more, 40 million tonnes of e-waste was produced, of which merely 20% was recycled properly. Huge amounts of e-waste already exist and many electronics have not yet entered the waste stream.

There is huge potential to close the loop on electronics and make materials savings. Keeping copper in circulation is a lot more valuable than sending it to landfill after it was used for 2 years in a mobile phone or as copper wire for electronics.

We should adjust how we value landfills and recognise that one day landfills will become a source for materials. Unfortunately, for now it seems that we prefer to mine unexplored areas before tackling the underlying root causes: our unsustainable patterns of production and consumption.

How mobile phones are 280 billion cars and 5,600 atomic bombs

I started looking at the production, use and disposal of electronic goods to figure out the environmental impacts along each of these stages. I found a paper that revealed just how much energy it takes to produce a mobile phone, which analysed the four processes involved in mobile phone production. The final result: the production of one mobile phone is equal to the energy of 175 one-tonne vehicles moving at 100 mph (source at the end of post).

Last year 1.6 billion phones were produced globally, with 60% of production coming from China.

Energy use breakdown

Here’s the joulific breakdown of energy required to produce a phone. Manufacturing mobile phones occurs in four stages, listed below.

    1. Materials extraction 23MJ
    2. Component manufacturing 120MJ
    3. Assembly 2MJ
    4. Packaging & transport 30MJ


Measuring the energy in joules- bite size recap

The units used for measuring energy use is joules. A joule represents the work done in applying a force required to accelerate a mass of one kilogram at a rate of one metre per second, per second (no type here). What on earth does this mean?

Here are some practical examples, straight from Wiki-P:

One joule in everyday life is approximately:

      • the energy required to lift a small apple one metre straight up. (A mass of about 102 g)
      • the energy released when that same apple falls one metre to the ground.
      • the energy released as heat by a person at rest, every 1/60th of a second.
      • the kinetic energyof a 50 kg human moving very slowly (0.2 m/s).
      • the kinetic energy of a tennis ball moving at 23 km/h (14 mph).

A mega joule is equivalent to one million joules, or more practically:

“the kinetic energy of a one-tonne vehicle moving at 160 km/h (100 mph)” (Wikipedia again).

Kinetic energy refers to the energy an object possesses when it’s in motion, so the energy needed to get it from a stationary to a moving state.

Global scale

Last year 1.6 billion phones were put on the market (UNEP), which required the following amount of energy for production: 1.6billion * 175MJ = 280 petajoules. The total global production of mobile phones thus requires an amount of energy equivalent to accelerate nearly 280 billion Volkswagen Golfs from 0 to 100mph. Bear in mind there are currently ‘only’ 1 billion cars in the world.


Volkswagen Golf Mk5, weight 1.3 tonnes

UPDATE [20th July]

Producing 1.6 billion phones each year requires 280 Petajoules of energy, equivalent to the energy released from approximately 5600 Hiroshima bombs (280 Petajoules / 50 Terajoules). All with some help from my engineering friends.

The Hiroshima nuclear bomb released roughly 50 Terajoules energy.

These figures don’t even include the energy required in the use, nor in the disposal of mobile phones. Take into consideration that we replace our mobile devices on average every 18-24 months. Even before we throw the phone away, we keep them in storage at home for at least 2 years before we chuck it, hopefully, into an appropriate waste stream. Storage delays recycling, which means we can’t substitute virgin materials with resources we could’ve otherwise have extracted from old mobile phones.

What to do?

Research shows that holding onto phones for longer reduces their environmental impact. So keep your mobile phone for as long as you can, until it breaks and can’t be repaired. Most people stop using their phone before it’s reached its end of life. Once you wish to throw it away, make sure you give it up to an appropriate programme where it can be treated properly.

Storing electronics influences the amount of products entering the waste stream before they can be appropriately treated. Nokia published results on a survey on how many mobile phones ended up in storage before being disposed of, which revealed the difficulty in collecting mobile phones, as nearly half were kept in home drawers (Cobbing, 2008) and merely 5% were collected for end of life treatment:

  • 48% kept in storage
  • 27% traded in for a new phone through vendor
  • 13% passed on to another person
  • 7% did something else
  • 3% national collection
  • 2% recycled through Nokia take back points

Envirofone, Mazuma and Pound4Phone are all highly rated mobile phone recycling services that are easy and simple to use.

I’m certainly a little sad about my phone taking up quite so much energy, but I have been using this little simple thing when I go travelling over the past 5 years and it’s still going strong. No obsolescence here (as compared to the iPhone I also own… woe betide the age of communication).

Source for MJ figures: Analysis of material and energy consumption of mobile phones in China, Jinglei Yu, Eric Williams , Meiting Ju 


Gotta keep it up

Why the city and cooperatives matter

Yesterday I trekked across Sao Paulo to Barra Funda to visit one of the city’s best waste cooperatives, Coopermiti. I say one of the best because cooperatives that deal with waste tend to have a bad reputation of being disorganised, inefficient and unfortunately dirty too (this came from two sector professionals who work with cooperatives).

Coopermiti are unique in that they secured a partnership with the Municipality of São Paulo, meaning that they are contracted by the city to deal with e-waste. Currently they recycle around 20,000 tonnes a month, employ around 30 ‘cooperadores’ and are pioneers in that they treat all types of e-waste. They receive the waste through donations and collection points and separate individual components before sending them off to appropriate recycling treatment centres. They are 100% efficient and create zero waste themselves.

I spent two hours there speaking with the President and then taking a tour around the place. Their employees are previously low-skilled or unemployed workers who are trained in the ways of a cooperative and learn to fix and dismantle waste, giving them great technical skills. Here’s Ana dismantling a desktop using the right type of equipment and protection.

Ana doing her thing

Usually when the private sector deals with waste, they only treat stuff that’s high in value: computers, laptops, mobile phones, printers etc. Nobody cares about hair dryers, keyboards, vacuum cleaners, electric shavers etc. Why? Because these products don’t contain the gold, silver, copper, palladium or tantalum found in ICT. Tantalum is made of coltan ore, which can fetch US$ 500 on the market, is found in mobile phones and mined in the Congo (in effect financing militias that force people into slave labour and destroy ecosystems).

What’s more, this cooperative also tackles social issues of digital exclusion and unemployment. However, without the help of the government they wouldn’t be able to operate.

So, there are some issues in our world that the private sector alone cannot solve. Treating all types of e-waste is one of them, which requires innovative and new types of partnerships, technology and infrastructure.

And when e-waste is this pretty, who wouldn’t want to work with it?

Instagram can make anything look pretty. I like these motherboards though.

Taking it back to the original source

Do you know how much aluminium you consume per year? Could you take a guess at how much copper your friend in a country like Brazil, Nigeria or China consumes?

It’s a bit of an odd question to ask yourself. Usually we’re asked to consider how much water or energy we consume, to which most of us splutter out some figures we don’t even really understand, like 5kWh (a unit I’m still getting my head around, but apparently most professionals don’t get it either, so here’s a good explanation if you wish to learn more, from David MacKay).

Yet, the electronics we own consume vast amounts of non-renewable resources. We’ve had an impact on the environment in just buying the product, even before we turn it on. I came across some data regarding the extraction of aluminium to produce electronic goods and I spent 40 minutes checking calculations because I couldn’t believe how much waste is generated.

The figures just reinforce how critical it is to recycle materials from electronics.

Metals for electronics: crash course
To make electronics, we need to extract metals. Some of the most popular metals found in electronics are:

  • Gold
  • Silver
  • Palladium
  • Copper
  • Tin
  • Aluminium

There are also some less well-known metals, like ruthenium, antimony, bismuth, selenium and indium.

Your average mobile phone contains around 250mg of silver, 24mg gold, 9mg palladium and 9g of copper (according to this report by the UNEP). That’s not much on an individual scale, but consider that in 2010 1.6 billion new mobile phones entered the market.

For the 1.6 billion mobile phones produced in 2010, this required:

  • 400 tonnes of silver (equivalent to the weight of 80 African bush elephants)
  • 38.4 tonnes of gold (7 elephants)
  • 14,400 kg of palladium (2 elephants)
  • 14,400 tonnes of copper (2 elephants)

In 2007 the combined sales of mobile phones and personal computers represented 3% of global supply of silver and gold, 13% of palladium and 15% of copper [1].

If we continue mining silver at the rate at which we did in 2010, we’re left with 23 years worth of reserves. So by 2033 all the silver in the ground will have been mined. The good news is that silver is fairly substitutable, but that doesn’t solve the issue of resource scarcity. For copper it’s been estimated we have about 39 years left and for gold about 20 years.

If these figures have stoked some interest, take a look at the Resource Revolution Report. It contains lots of information on all types of resources and how we’re guzzling them away.

Back to the start
In answer to the original question, people living in a country with a GDP higher than US$25,000 are said to consume between 15-35 kg of aluminium per year. Individuals living in a country with a GDP lower than US $5,000 consume less than 5kg of aluminium per year. The aluminium is embodied in TVs, laptops and computers amongst others.
To produce 1 tonne of aluminium, you need to extract 4-5 tonnes of bauxite first, which then gets processed into aluminium. One tonne of bauxite generates 13 tonnes of waste. So one tonne of aluminium generates circa 65 tonnes of waste (13*5). Click on the image to the right for better detail.

For 10,000 televisions, you need to extract 6t of aluminium, which generates 390 tonnes of waste (equivalent to 36 new London Routemasters [2]).

So far, so good. Now, lets consider that 200 million new televisions were produced last year. This means 7,800,000 tonnes of waste produced to make the aluminium for 200 million TVs. This is equal to 300 million London Routemasters.

These facts are for aluminium alone. The extraction of copper, silver, gold and other materials further contribute waste and pollution to the environment, and human health.

All these numbers provide a somewhat clouded, jaded, view of the environmental impacts of electronics. It’s not easy to get your head around what 7,800,000,000 tonnes of solid waste looks likes, or even means.

What’s important to understand is that mining metals to produce electronics is driving resource depletion and waste generation. The facts speak for themselves and make a good case for recycling. According to the UN: “Recycling 1 kilogram of aluminium saves 5 to 8 kg of bauxite, 4 kg of chemicals and 14 kilowatts of electricity. It also produces 95% less air pollution.”

The origin of electronic and digital life begins deep down in mine ores. The question is how long and how deep can we continue digging?

“A river bleached white with the waste of aluminium production, emerging into red lake.” Darrow, Louisiana – J. Henry Fair


[1] The Global Aluminium Recycling Committee. Global aluminium recycling: a cornerstone of sustainable development. London: International Aluminium Institute, 2006.

[2] Weighing around 11 tonnes each according to Wikipedia (no shame in using it as reference).

E-waste lands: a story of waste through photos

Through a friend I happened to stumble across this great documentary project by photographer Sophie Gerrard.

Her images typically represent e-waste lands, created through the illegal shipping of electronic waste to countries like India and China. In my research I’ve come across studies that have estimated that of the e-waste that is supposedly collected for recycling, 80% gets shipped off to developing countries in Asia and Africa. Pretty shocking.

In the EU, even though we have implemented the EU WEEE Directive and the Basel Convention, this report by Greenpeace states that 75% of e-waste remains part of the ‘hidden flow’ of electronic rubbish; ‘hidden’ because it slips through regulation and recycling.

Click on the image above to view Sophie Gerrard’s E-wasteland project.