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Week Thirty-Four - Electronics

Electronics have low embedded carbon so pick devices that use less power.

· Weekly experiments

My partner

- Aldi's got a 65 inch TV this week. Should we get one?

Me

- We'd have to move house and buy a bigger car to fit it in. When did recreation become such hard work?

Return to the Dark Ages?

I'd like to say I spend my evenings listening to symphonies and catching up on my scientific reading. But I'm knackered at the end of the day, so it's Netflix and chill. I was therefore nervous about analysing my electronics. I needn't have been. It turns out they don't contain much embedded carbon dioxide and equivalent emissions (CO2e). The power they use is far more important.

The bad news? Australians use a lot of electronics

According to the ABS, Australians are among the highest users of technology. Ewaste is growing fast. How much of this stuff do we use each year?

The National Waste Report 2018 says Australians consumed around 485 kilotonnes of Ewaste in 2016-17. If evenly split across the commercial and domestic sectors, that means Australian householders consume around 10 kilograms of electronics per person per year. I audited my household consumption and found we ran a little lower at around 2 kilograms per person per year.

The good news? Those electronics have low embedded carbon

It takes energy to mine, manufacture and transport all those devices. That means they contain embedded carbon. How much?

I ran my Australian consumption numbers figures against UK Government carbon data. The embedded carbon was low at only 18 kilograms CO2e per person per year for the average Australian householder and 3.5 kilograms CO2e per year for me.

This made sense on reflection. Electronics contain carbon-intense materials like precious metals, but they also have low impact material like plastic. By weight, they only comprise around 4% of our general consumption of clothing, furniture and household stuff. We buy less of them than food, furniture or clothing. And size matters. In general, the less material something contains, the lower its carbon footprint. The trend of switching from a desktop to a phone or tablet is reducing our embedded carbon.

But our electronics use a lot of power

While embedded carbon is low, appliances chew up a lot of electricity (see Week Twenty-Eight). In my household, the biggest drains were the computer, heater, fridge and TV. Running these was responsible for generating around 460 kilograms CO2e per person per year. This means we should focus more on a device's power use than its embedded carbon.

For instance, if your fridge is old, try the following.

- Use a power meter to see how much power it uses.

- Use an infrared thermometer to see if it's leaking heat.

- If the fridge uses a lot of power, find a fridge buyback scheme if you can and replace it. If you can't afford to replace it, replace the seals if they're leaking heat.

- Don't fall into the 'Star Trap'. A big five-star fridge might be efficient for its size, but it still use more power than a small three-star fridge. Pick the smallest fridge you need and check its actual power use, not just its energy star ratings.

- Maintain the fewest devices you can. Do you need to run more than one fridge and one TV?

Ewaste isn't free

Electronics aren't our biggest climate culprit but they still cause harm. They contain non-renewable resources, like copper and gold. Some contain hazardous materials, like lead and mercury, which may not get the careful handling and disposal they need. Australia has lots of recycling schemes but our recovery rate on Ewaste is still low. Manufacturing and dumping may take place overseas where there's poor regulation and high pollution.

So don't go crazy with appliances. Minimise your Ewaste. Wipe your data and recycle old computers, phones, TVs and other products. Support the right to repair movement. Buy and run fewer devices. When buying new, choose something that uses less electricity.

In other news, my family didn't get that big TV. If it won't fit the Tiida, it won't fit my life. But if my partner's as smart as I think he is, next time he'll argue for a more efficient model while recycling the old one.

Feel guilty about buying that new phone? Put it to good use at an XR or climate change rally.

 

Calculations, notes and data sources in the 'Notes' section for Week Thirty-Four.

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