A Practical Guide to Sustainable ICT
Paul Mobbs/MEI – Articles & Books:
A Practical Guide to Sustainable ICT
A Practical Guide to Sustainable ICT (published August 2012) represents a radical rethink of our relationship to everyday digital technologies.
You can download the book as a single PDF file – see the 'background materials' section below to download each individual chapters and additional worksheets.
For some time I've been looking at the ecological impacts of ICT – in particular the issue of rare minerals depletion and its potential impacts on our future use of technology.
Then the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) picked up on my work and asked me to write a "practical guide" to sustainable ICT for everyday users. Funding for writing the book came from the International Development Research Centre.
About the book
A Practical Guide to Sustainable IT offers a detailed, "hands-on" introduction to thinking about sustainable computing holistically; starting with the choices you make when buying technology, through to the software and peripherals you use, how you store and work with information, manage your security, save power, and maintain and dispose of your old hardware. Suggestions and advice for policy makers are also included in the annexures, along with some practical tips for internet service providers.
The purpose of the guide is to encourage everyday consumers of technology – from home-users, to people working in a small office environment, from journalists to activists to government clerks – to begin using technology in an environmentally sound way. We can all play our part, and the practice of sustainable computing will go a long way in helping to tackle the environmental crisis facing our planet. It's about developing better behaviours and habits when buying, using and discarding our everyday technology.
The guide has been developed by environmentalist and IT expert Paul Mobbs on behalf of the Association for Progressive Communication (APC), with funding support from the International Development Research Centre. It is part of APC's GreeningIT programme, which aims to promote an environmental consciousness amongst civil society groups using information and communications technologies, and amongst the public more generally.
The book and related background materials
You can download the book as a single PDF file, or click on the links below to download each individual chapter:
- Introduction – What is "sustainable" IT?
- An introduction to the themes of this series, and an explanation of the reasons why we should view our use of technology as a "system" rather than as separate processes. Too often we focus on the demands or specifications of "the machine" – instead we should look at our information needs.
- The ecology of information technology
- IT is a tool – like all other human tools that we have created through the ages. This unit examines the general issue of how the "human system" uses technology – how digital technologies work for us, how these technologies influence the wider environment we inhabit, and the emerging restrictions on our future use of these tools.
- Hardware: Putting the system together
- An exploration of computer hardware, in its various guises, and how the choices we make about hardware influence the ecological footprint of our use of IT. While many may look primarily at power consumption, the manufacture of digital electronics also has a major impact on the global environment. In this unit we try and measure these impacts, and find some ways to manage our demand for information systems.
- Operating systems: Making the system work
- What makes computer hardware more than an expensive collection of electronic circuits is the software we use to give the machine a purpose. This unit looks at operating systems and computer hardware, the issue of intellectual property rights, and the influence of our choice of software on the ecological performance of the hardware we use.
- Desktops: Programs, peripherals and gadgets
- The computer desktop is the heart of our daily interaction with the power and versatility of information systems. How we configure the desktop, but also how we use the various gadgets and peripheral devices that we connect to the system, has a big effect on the ecological footprint of our use of technology.
- Information storage
- Information is a "resource", and obeys many of the physical laws that govern our use of matter and energy. How we choose to store and back-up information has a direct bearing on the ecological impacts of our use of IT in general, and also the reliability and resilience of the information that we store.
- Local and global networks
- The networking of hardware has enabled the power of computers to become so versatile, but that in itself has spawned the exponential growth of both data transactions and the growth of power-hungry on-line storage systems to support them. Understanding how the network consumes power, and how our use of the network drives consumption, can allow us to keep these demands under control.
- Maintenance, security and resilience
- All tools need looking after if they are to have a long and productive life, and that requires that we understand a little more about how they work and how to care for them. This section considers the basics of system maintenance – both hardware and software – and the basic physical security precautions to take in order to prevent theft and damage.
- End of life and disposal
- When does the life of digital equipment end? Is it when it no longer functions (it's broken) or when it can't/isn't capable of performing a useful function any more? This unit examines how much life we can extract from our information systems, and what we should do with them when they have served their useful purpose.
- Reuse and reclamation
- Can we recycle digital equipment? And how can we determine what's best to do with old equipment when it no longer serves its primary purpose? To answer these questions we need to consider the options available for reusing or upgrading old equipment, and identify what the limitations are on using old equipment.
- Renewable power
- Information systems consume electricity, and while in most cases the power might be sourced from the electricity grid, there are alternatives. Renewable electricity can offer an alternative, lower carbon source of electricity. For those who live away from the electricity grid, or where the grid is unreliable, it can also offer a means to use IT without the restrictions imposed by the local grid.
- Subject index and glossary
Alongside the book there are also a series of check-list sheets to help you quickly audit your use of ICTs:
- Buying hardware
- Provides advice on what hardware to buy for your needs.
- Operating systems
- Tells you what you need to know in order to find the right operating system for your needs.
- Desktop systems
- Provides a breakdown of how to configure your desktop to save energy.
- Storing information
- How to store information in a more energy-efficient way.
- When to print
- Printing – it's not always a bad thing! This sheet helps you calculate when you should print or when you should keep it online.
Along with the guide, GreenNet has also compiled a series of at-a-glance tip sheets to help everyday users and IT professionals use computers in a more sustainable way. We hope you'll find them useful:
- Saving energy
- This tip sheet looks at a variety of ways in which you can save energy – from putting your monitor on sleep, when to turn your computer off, screen savers and internet use.
- Buying and disposing of electronics
- This tip sheet provides tips on what to look for when buying electronics, and where to take your used and end-of-life electronics.
- Getting your organisation to greenIT
- This tip sheet looks at who in your organisation can help start a process to green its IT and provides examples or roles and tasks for the various individuals.
- Energy efficiency for IT professionals and designers
- Especially relevant to those in the IT and design industries, but also useful to anyone using websites, storing website information, servers and more; this tip sheet takes a more technical look at what you can do to in terms of server use and replacement, CPU use, software creation, web design and more.
- Using IT and electronics to benefit the environment
- Provides a survey of how electronics are being used to monitor and improve environmental conditions across the world.
Key references and reading materials
- New reports/updates since book was published:
- Make IT Fair – reports
A wide range of technical reports on IT hardware production, human rights and ecological impacts
- Make IT Fair – leaflets
A collection of leaflets on IT hardware production, human rights and ecological impacts
- "Short Circuit: the Lifecycle of our Electronic Gadgets and the True Cost to Earth"
Gaia Foundation, 2013
A new report launched by The Gaia Foundation and allies, exposes the social and ecological atrocities and the toxic legacy of gadgets such as smartphones and laptops. From environmental destruction and contamination caused by extraction, exploitative working conditions during production, to the mountains of e-waste being shipped abroad, the report follows the birth, life and death of everyday gadgets and reveals their true cost to the planet and to future generations.
- How Clean is Your Cloud?
Greenpeace International, 2012
Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo – these global brands and a host of other IT companies are rapidly and fundamentally transforming the way in which we work, communicate, watch movies or TV, listen to music, and share pictures through "the cloud." The growth and scale of investment in the cloud is truly mind-blowing, with estimates of a 50-fold increase in the amount of digital information by 2020 and nearly half a trillion in investment in the coming year, all to create and feed our desire for ubiquitous access to infinite information from our computers, phones and other mobile devices, instantly.
- Minerals and metals scarcity in manufacturing: The ticking time bomb
The world's growing population, an increase in GDP levels and changing lifestyles are causing consumption levels to rise globally – creating a higher and higher demand for resources. Governments and companies are becoming increasingly cognisant of the scope, importance and urgency of the scarcity of both renewable and nonrenewable natural recources including energy, water, land and minerals. The interrelationships between these resources are strong, which means that both the causes of scarcity and the solutions to it are complex. There can be a fine line between 'just in time' and 'just not there'.
- From Mine to Mobile Phone: The Conflict Minerals Supply Chain
Enough Project, November 2010
Increasing pressure on electronics companies to ensure that their products do not contain illicit minerals from the killing fields in eastern Congo is beginning to have a significant impact.
- ICT and the Environment
Computeraid International, August 2010
Numerous attempts are under way to stem the rising e-waste tide. While the specifi cs of each country's approach differ, in the main all aim to increase the separate collection of e-waste and its recovery by reuse and recycling. However, of these two options, recycling is often the default end-of-life response, regardless of whether the equipment is at the end of its useful life.
- Electronics piling up in landfill
Reportage Enviro, May 2010
Australia is listed as one of the top ten consumers of electronics in the world. However management of electronic waste is lagging behind consumer demand, with so called 'e-waste' growing three times the rate of general waste, according to a report by the Environment Protection Heritage Council (EPHC).
- Make IT Green Cloud Computing and its Contribution to Climate Change
Ultimately, if cloud providers want to provide a truly green and renewable cloud, they must use their power and influence to not only drive investments near renewable energy sources, but also become involved in setting the policies that will drive rapid deployment of renewable electricity generation economy-wide, and place greater R&D into storage devices that will deliver electricity from renewable sources 24/7.
- Metal Stocks in Society: Scientific Synthesis
UN Environment Programme, 2010
Metals are present everywhere around us and are one of the major materials upon which our economies are built. In particular in emerging economies, but also in industrialized countries, the demand for metals is increasing. Therefore, mining activities expand, potentially leading to growing environmental impacts. Recycling is a way to mitigate these impacts. We can call this "mining above ground" or "urban mining", and these activities are of increasing importance in generating raw materials.
- Mobile phone production in China
Nordbrand and de Haan, Make IT Fair, 2009
This research indicates discrimination during recruitment, as well as illegal and unhealthy working hours. As expressed in the earlier publication, excessive overtime hours are often a result of a combination of low wage levels and orders placed late or changed at the last minute.
- Playing with labour rights: music players and game console manufacturing in China
With such growing demand among mainly teenagers and young adults, manufacturing these devices has increased rapidly over the past few years. A large and increasing part of the manufacturing process is taking place in developing and transition countries. Currently more than half of the world’s MP3 players, 30–40 percent of PMP players, and most game consoles are being produced in China. Most of the workers at the production lines are young women who oft en carry a heavy burden as the main family breadwinner. Many workers in China’s electronics sector are denied many of their basic rights.
- Silenced to Deliver: Mobile phone manufacturing in China and the Philippines
Chan et. al., 2008
In 2006 a magic milestone was reached when one billion phones were produced in just one year. A large and increasing part of the manufacturing is taking place in developing and transition countries. Currently half of the world’s mobile phones are produced in China and 10% of global semi-conductor production takes place in the Philippines. Most of the workers at the production lines are young women who often carry a heavy burden as the main breadwinners of their families. As workers in the electronics sector of China and the Philippines they are denied many of their basic rights.
- Key reports/sources from the original book text (in reverse chronological order):
- Perspectives on Limits to Growth: Challenges to Building a Sustainable Planet
Smithsonian Institute/MIT seminar, March 2012
The Club of Rome and the Smithsonian Institution's Consortium for Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet hosted a symposium on March 1st 2012 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the launching of Limits to Growth, the first report to the Club of Rome published in 1972. This book was one of the earliest scholarly works to recognize that the world was fast approaching its sustainable limits. Forty years later, the planet continues to face many of the same economic, social, and environmental challenges as when the book was first published.
- The Story of Electronics
Annie Leonard/Free Range Studios, 2010
The Story of Electronics explores the high-tech revolution's collateral damage: 25 million tons of e-waste and counting, poisoned workers and a public left holding the bill. Host Annie Leonard takes viewers from the mines and factories where our gadgets begin to the horrific backyard recycling shops in China where many end up. The film concludes with a call for a green 'race to the top' where designers compete to make long-lasting, toxic-free products that are fully and easily recyclable. For more information goto The Story of Electronics site.
- iFixit Manifesto
Let's take back our right to repair! Help us get this manifesto posted in every workshop, hacker space, and garage in the world!
- What's the carbon footprint of... the internet?
Duncan Clark and Mike Berners-Lee, Guardian Online, 12th August 2010
The internet releases around 300m tonnes of CO2 a year – as much as all the coal, oil and gas burned in Turkey or Poland, or more than half of the fossil fuels burned in the UK
- Critical raw materials for the EU
European Commission, 2010
Although raw materials are essential for the EU economy, their availability is increasingly under pressure. Within the framework of the EU Raw Materials Initiative, it was decided to identify a list of critical raw materials at EU level, in close cooperation with Member States and stakeholders. With regards to geological availability, the Group observes that, as geological scarcity is not considered as an issue for determining criticality of raw materials within the considered time horizon of the study, e.g. ten years. Global reserve figures are not reliable indicators of long term availability. Of greater relevant are changes in the geopolitical-economic framework that impact on the supply and demand of raw materials. These changes relate to the growing demand for raw materials, which in turn is driven by the growth of developing economies and new emerging technologies.
- Smarter Moves: How Information Communications Technology can promote Sustainable Mobility
Sustainable Development Commission, 2010
Transport currently accounts for 29% of the UK's total carbon dioxide emissions, and unlike other major sectors, its emissions continue to rise. But by making more effective use of Information Communications Technology we can reverse that trend, and at the same time make travel in the UK easier, safer and more environmentally friendly in the future.
- "Faced with a gun, what can you do?": War and the militarisation of mining in Eastern Congo
Global Witness, July 2009
In many parts of the provinces of North and South Kivu, armed groups and the Congolese national army control the trade in cassiterite (tin ore), gold, columbite-tantalite (coltan), wolframite (a source of tungsten) and other minerals. The unregulated nature of the mining sector in eastern DRC, combined with the breakdown of law and order and the devastation caused by the war, has meant that these groups have had unrestricted access to these minerals and have been able to establish lucrative trading networks. The profits they make through this plunder enable some of the most violent armed groups to survive.
- The monster footprint of digital technology
Kris De Decker, Low Tech Magazine, June 16th 2009
When we talk about energy consumption, all attention goes to the electricity use of a device or a machine while in operation. A 30 watt laptop is considered more energy efficient than a 300 watt refrigerator. This may sound logical, but this kind of comparisons does not make much sense if you don't also consider the energy that was required to manufacture the devices you compare. This is especially true for high-tech products, which are produced by means of extremely material- and energy-intensive manufacturing processes. How much energy do our high-tech gadgets really consume?
- Gadgets and Gigawatts: Policies for Energy Efficient Electronics
International Energy Agency, 2009
Gadgets and Gigawatts: Policies for Energy Efficient Electronics, includes a global assessment of the changing pattern in residential electricity consumption over the past decade and an in-depth analysis of the role played by electronic equipment. It reviews the influence that government policies have had on creating markets for more energy efficient appliances and identifies new opportunities for creating smarter, more energy efficient homes. This book is essential reading for policy makers and others interested in improving the energy efficiency of our homes.
- The Congo's Blood Metals
Caroline Sourt, The Guardian, Friday 26th December 2008
The conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo looks intractable – and there is little appetite, in Britain or elsewhere, to send more troops there. But while the fighting is not going to stop as long as militias control the region's natural resources, consumers in the west do have the power to limit their funds.
- Smart 2020: Enabling the low carbon economy in the information age
The Climate Group, 2008
This report quantifies the direct emissions from ICT products and services based on expected growth in the sector. It also looked at where ICT could enable significant reductions of emissions in other sectors of the economy and has quantified these in terms of CO2e emission savings and cost savings. For related publications and a print-quality version of the report see the 'Smart 2020'.
- A Comparison of the Limits to Growth with Thirty Years of Reality
Graham Turner, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), June 2008
This paper focuses on a comparison of recently collated historical data for 1970-2000 with scenarios presented in the Limits to Growth. The analysis shows that 30 years of historical data compares favorably with key features of a business-as-usual scenario called the "standard run" scenario, which results in collapse of the global system midway through the 21st Century. The data does not compare well with other scenarios involving comprehensive use of technology or stabilizing behaviour and policies. The results indicate the particular importance of understanding and controlling global pollution.
- Harnessing Green IT: Principles and Practices
San Murugesan, IT Pro, January/February 2008
Adopting a holistic approach to greening IT is our responsibility toward creating a more sustaining environment. We are passionate about advances in and widespread adoption of IT. However, IT has been contributing to environmental problems, which most people don't realize. Computers and other IT infrastructure consume signifiant amounts of electricity, placing a heavy burden on our electric grids and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, IT hardware poses severe environmental problems both during its production and its disposal. IT is a significant and growing part of the environmental problems we face today.
- Recycled Cell Phones: A TreasureTrove of Valuable Metals
USGS Fact Sheet 2006-3097, July 2006
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) collects worldwide data on almost all mineral commodities. Recycling, a significant factor in the supply of many of the metals used in our society, provides environmental benefits, such as energy savings, reduced volumes of waste, and reduced emissions associated with energy savings. In addition, recycling reduces the amount of virgin metals that must be mined to support our lifestyle. This USGS Fact Sheet examines the potential value of recycling the metals found in obsolete cell phones.
- The 1.7 Kilogram Microchip: Energy and Material Use in the Production of Semiconductor Devices
Williams et. al., Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, 36(24) p5504-5510, 2002
The scale of environmental impacts associated with the manufacture of microchips is characterized through analysis of material and energy inputs into processes in the production chain. The total weight of secondary fossil fuel and chemical inputs to produce and use a single 2-gram 32MB DRAM chip are estimated at 1,600 grams and 72 grams, respectively. Use of water and elemental gases in the fabrication stage are 32,000 and 700 grams per chip, respectively. The production chain yielding silicon wafers from quartz uses 160 times the energy required for typical silicon, indicating that purification to semiconductor grade materials is energy intensive. Due to its extremely low-entropy, organized structure, the materials intensity of a microchip is orders of magnitude higher than that of "traditional" goods. Future analysis of semiconductor and other low entropy high-tech goods needs to include the use of secondary materials, especially for purification.
- Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development
Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report, from the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) was published in 1987. Its targets were multilateralism and interdependence of nations in the search for a sustainable development path. The report sought to recapture the spirit of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment – the Stockholm Conference – which had introduced environmental concerns to the formal political development sphere. Our Common Future placed environmental issues firmly on the political agenda; it aimed to discuss the environment and development as one single issue.