digital dematerialization

The footprint of dematerialization

The technological prowess of contemporary NICTs, propelling "dematerialization" to the forefront of the spectacular economic scene, has created erroneous representations of the abyssal ecological footprint of the complex equipment manufactured. The purpose of this article is to reconstruct the production chain of NICTs and their life cycle (LCA), in order to shed light on the various problems posed by the hymn to digital technology from the point of view of its impact.

Wrestling with high-tech dematerialization

France, year 2013: 622 million items of electrical and electronic equipment are placed on the market, which represents the weight of 153 Eiffel Towers, made up of 45 % of steel and 8% of non-ferrous metals (copper, cobalt, indium, tantalum, etc.) [1]. This represents more than nine high-tech gadgets for each Frenchman... for those who can at least! The poorest households do not target this kind of equipment as a priority, without too many surprises [2]. The digital divide is indeed a physical reality... but would it really be a good idea to try to bridge it?
Covering the territory with waves and smart-machines comes at a price, and it's not just economic: although difficult to perceive, the footprint on the world's ecosystems is monstrous. In the 1990s, it seemed that so-called "dematerialization" was flourishing on an inert medium, with online presence manifesting itself through digitized algorithms. Behind this potential for the virtualization of exchanges was the promise of a third industrial revolution, led by the new flagships of the industry and their adulated heralds, as the death of Steve Jobs testifies. An asymmetrical representation of computer technology was emerging: the plethora of virtual activities was accelerating the economy and favouring services, but this productivity was generating a disjointed dynamic of physical realities, despite visible connections and screens. The wave of NICTs would pollute less than the functional means used before them: online information rather than printed materials, e-mail rather than letters, videoconferencing instead of energy-consuming travel, etc. The new technologies would also make the economy more efficient and more efficient. A panoply of peremptory arguments was opening up for the proponents of dematerialization, which has logically made its niche in society.
It should also be pointed out that the argument is spread thanks to the poor visibility of the digital infrastructure: delocalized production of complex components, computer miniaturization, underwater fibers, satellites, waves, scattered storage units, etc. This decoupling of the digital infrastructure from its ecological footprint has been a major obstacle to the acceptance of a critical discourse on the life of high tech within the political ecology. But we now know that ICTs as a whole consume at least 12 to 15% of the global electricity production [3], and that, if the Internet were a country, it would be the 6th largest consumer in the world, ahead of Germany [4]: faced with such a situation, there is no longer any recourse left.
However, the media focus is generally on the use of these technologies, while the related energy intensity represents only a modest fragment of their ecological footprint, much less than the energy required to make the products, the mining resources extracted for manufacturing, the pollution and global risks generated, which is the main reason for the following lines. We will follow the course of a turbulent river, which takes us to the source of the metal deposits (Bihouix P., De Guillebon B., What future for metals?Metal scarcity, a new challenge for society, EDP Sciences, 2010), goes through the digital computing rooms, and finishes his run at the urban waste dump. This article therefore proposes a detailed inventory of these technologies that many of us use every day, without taking the measure of their history.

I - The metallic intensity of ICTs

The first step would be to include in the life cycle assessment (LCA) of NICTs the tonnes of explosives needed to pulverize ores and dismember metal particles that are used extensively. The second step would be to evaluate the CO2 balance of the metals during the first treatments reserved: (a) hydro-metallurgical for lithium, chromium, zinc, copper, cobalt in particular, combined with dissolution, purification and electrolysis operations; (b) pyrometallurgy for nickel, platinum and cobalt, carried out by roasting, oxidation and refining, with a high degree of reinforcement of sulphur or chlorinated acid baths. But such a study, to our knowledge, does not exist for the whole planet: we therefore begin with a brief overview of established knowledge.
A - Metallic extractivism at the source of NICTs
The use of metals is more and more dispersive in our societies: inks, papers, paints, dyes, cosmetics, aeronautics, agriculture, fireworks etc. In total, the demand for metals for high-tech industries has more than tripled over the last 20 to 30 years [5]; over the same period, the demand for metals in the Mendeleev table has increased from 10 in the 1980s to 60 metals in the years 2010. The place of NICTs among other high-tech industries leads European Commission prospectors to estimate that European demand for many rare metals will literally explode by 2030: 22 times more gallium, 8 times more germanium and indium, 7 times more neodymium, 4 times more titanium, 3 times more copper [6]! And this exploitation of course is not supposed to replace traditional extractions: the new alloys are added.
Extraction of rare earths at the Mountain Pass mine site in California / © Molycorp

The ICT industry sits on the table of elements: a laptop contains 42 different metals, out of a total of at least 1500 components, as do telephones, a technology whose sales stagnate at 1.7 billion per year [7]. The table below shows the energy required to recover 1 kg of metal in its virgin state. 1500 joules, the energy needed to produce certain metals, is equivalent to 416 kwh, which is approximately the energy spent by an ordinary car over 25 km. But some metals require much more to conglomerate:
Energy required to recover 1 kg of virgin metal: orders of magnitude [8]
Palladium 18 000 MJ 5000 Kw/h 300 km of road
Platinum 19 000 MJ 5277 Kw/h 317 km of road
Gold 31 000 MJ 8611 Kw/h 517 km of road
B - Dependence and scarcity: the fragility of the digital infrastructure
Some innovations that are particularly emblematic of the ICT revolution have thus generated a dependence on metals (gallium for LEDs, blue ray and laser, indium for liquid crystal displays, germanium for transistors and optical fibres, tantalum for capacitors, etc.). It should be borne in mind that, as with fossil fuels, (a) metals lack suitable replacements for their various functions (e.g. antimony as a flame retardant, or metals for digital memory), (b) performance losses are associated with their replacement (tantalum, rare earths, niobium), (c) and that substitutes are contingent and limited (indium and gallium by zinc or copper, cobalt) [9]. The European Commission also recognizes the critical dependence for many metals: copper, zinc, antimony, tantalum, cobalt, niobium, palladium, yttrium, indium, terbium, germanium, europium, ruthenium, gallium. The substitutability of ores therefore appears to be falsely accredited by the abstraction of a market where supply and demand would necessarily cross.
This context has the effect of minimizing the geopolitical forces that have a stranglehold on rare metals. For antimony and tungsten, China accounts for more than 80% of world production, 65% for germanium, and 95% of rare earth ores [10]. It should also be borne in mind that some materials considered for their potential to substitute rare metals, such as graphite, are also exported from China to the tune of 75% [11]. Tantalum (coltan) is imported at low cost from DRC at 80%, while lithium, platinum or tin are dependent on a handful of countries. Very often, however, it is these same resources that must be used in renewable energy industries and other high technology industries. Soon, choices will have to be made to deal with import deficits: it is reasonable to predict that at least a dozen metals will be in short supply over the next 30 years. The spectre of scarcity therefore haunts the entire NICT industry.
In addition to high CO2 and sulphur emissions in particular, the metal industry generates the formation of toxic sludge that can spread in rivers and oceans and poison the surrounding biodiversity through respiratory exposure and the bioaccumulation of particles in the food chain. Metals affect the genetic code by neutralizing amino acids used for detoxification, damage nerve cells and cause allergies [12]. The manufacture of laptop computers requires various metals with high (chromium, selenium, mercury, arsenic) or medium (antimony, tin, copper, manganese, cobalt) toxicity attributes, but the most significant environmental impact is on precious metals (palladium, gold and silver) which contribute almost 50% of the overall impact of materials. The NICT industry is therefore heavily involved in the destruction of various ecosystems: forest (in tropical latitudes in West Africa, Guyana, New Caledonia or Indonesia, for example), and maritime, since this is where the toxic sludge from mines is released.

II - Digital manufacturing and micro-electric components

The subject of digital manufacturing is one that receives very little media coverage, even though it is proving to be a crucial issue in the NICT industry. Without the algorithmic sequences of 0 and 1 and the robotic machines that juxtapose laser cutters, digital milling machines, and other utltra-technical skills, the physical manufacturing of NICTs would be impossible. For this reason, the physical evaluation of one technology over another is becoming increasingly difficult: while digital machines are needed to make computers, computer-controlled digital machines are needed to develop digital design machines. The construction of our microelectronic components falls on a systemic circle where each element integrates a structure as large as it is unknown. Each of the microelectronic components is administered by a gigantic interplay of robotics and computers, so the analysis software was transformed when mechanical forces and manual energy were replaced by digital manufacturing.
A - CNCs: energy ogres
To give you the basics, let's remember that from the 2000s onwards, the energy intensity of numerical machine tools (Computer Numerical Control: CNC) literally exploded. While the energy efficiency of these machines was slightly improved at the end of the 20th century, the trend was reversed in the 2000s. To perform the same complete metal cutting operation, a CNC milling machine in the 2000s requires 25 times more energy than a previous CNC machine, and 75 times more than a manual machine tool [13]. It is particularly noteworthy that the energy intensity of the new CNCs is very difficult to lower: the thermal conditions required to start them up are such that they are systematically left on, ready for use. This situation means that only 15% of the energy consumed by these machines is actually used to machine the parts, the remaining 85% being the prerequisite for any use [14]!
8 trillion transistors are being built every second
The CNC machines allow the realization of many key components, including :
- Transistors, the emblem of overproduction in microelectronics, because these electronic micro-switches are indispensable for voltage modulations. According to researcher Jean-Luc Autran, 8000 billion transistors are built every second [15], in dust-free rooms where machines are supplied with modified resources: micro-filtered air, absolutely pure water thanks to chemical alloys, and silicone;
- Microchips by the shovel. Before 2007, 32 litres of water, 1.6 litres of oil and 72 grams of chemicals were needed to manufacture a chip [16]. These figures seem low as long as one avoids comparisons on a larger scale: today it takes 800 kg of fuel oil to produce 1 kg of microchips, while it only takes 12 kg of fuel oil to produce 1 kg of computer! [17] ;
- Miniature circuit boards. This explains the dimensions of laptop computers, where the motherboard centralizes the related cards (graphics card, sound card, memory card etc.) and concentrates 90% tantalum, 64% palladium, 57% silver, and 46% gold used in the machine, before the other components [18].
B - At the frontiers of electronics: the perverse effects of the nano dimension
Electronic miniaturization is reaching a new frontier. Having crossed the 10-9 metre frontier in the development of the latest waves of components, we know that on an atomic scale, electronic components no longer obey the laws of gravitational physics but of quantum physics. For the time being, industry is developing the use of nanomaterials, whose merits are praised in several respects: nanoscale particles have immense capacities for mechanical and thermal resistance as well as electrical conductivity, sometimes 50 or 100 times the potentials of conventional metals [19].
Currently, the processes under study are mainly aimed at two benefits: promoting efficiency gains, thanks to thermal and conductive properties (especially for microchips); and reducing greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. But as always, these benefits need to be reframed in a broader perspective, as not all nanomaterials are created equal. The production of one kilogram of nanocarbon fibers uses up to 3,000 MJ, while nanotubes consume 15 times as much (50,000 MJ), and the production of semiconductors climbs to 100,000 MJ [20].
In addition, the change in nano scale raises concerns: toxicological properties are transformed by the size of the materials. Although nanoscale materials are harmless in principle during the use phase - the components are then isolated and confined - their manufacture generates extremely toxic diffuse emissions. For example, nanosilver is known to emit four times more nitrous oxide when it enters a wastewater treatment plant, a situation that can be explained by the size of the particles [21]. While it is already recognized that many chemicals are associated with chronic diseases such as cancer, asthma, and respiratory problems, there is a lack of pathological knowledge of the effects of nano-cocktails of products, and of the non-linear consequences induced by exposures to more or less strong dosages [22].
Experiments on mice at the University of Edinburgh have shown that carbon nanotubes, whether long or short, have the same effects as asbestos fibres, which are known to trigger mesothelioma [23], a fatal cancer that attacks the pericardium and lungs. Each time a nanomaterial is put on the market, a battery of tests should be carried out, but this problem does not seem to worry manufacturers too much, who only allocate 3% of their research on nanos to the study of risks [24].

III - The impossible challenge of the industrial recycling of W.E.D.s

According to Ademe, Electrical and Electronic Equipment (EEE) is equipment designed to be used at a voltage not exceeding 1500 volts DC. This definition therefore covers a multitude of appliances with various functions: washing machine, television, drill, vending machine, lamp, mobile phone, etc. One of the purposes of this definition is to be able to regulate toxic propagations: the E.E.D. directive thus aims to limit exposure to flows of mercury, cadmium, lead and other pathogenic agents.
If in 2013 the D3E market represented 23 kg of goods for each French person, the share of waste collected was only 6.9 kg [25], which is slightly below the EU average, the rest having been exported, recycled in non-compliant conditions, or thrown in the trash. Collection is therefore insufficient compared to the need for recovery, but the possibilities for recycling are limited: only 40% of the ICT mass is recyclable [26].
For smartphones, for example, common materials such as iron, copper or zinc are mostly recycled. But keep in mind that the elements that make up the battery (15% of the total weight), can be useless if the ionizing potential is exhausted (mainly lithium, cobalt, graphite, copper). Above all, about forty other metals are used in a diffuse way: they do not weigh more than 0.2% of the total weight. As far as they are concerned, and in spite of their preciosity, they are not recycled to more than 1%, if they are recycled (gallium, indium, tantalum, germanium, lanthanides) [27]. This is not surprising, since miniaturized manufacturing is done in successive layers, and each component will have the integrated attributes of a mini-meta-material. Consequently, not only does recycling face titanic technical difficulties, but a gigantic amount of energy will be required to recover only minute particles. Not surprisingly, only 0.1% of the nanomaterials in electronics are recycled [28].
Only 40% of the ICT mass is recyclable
The current demand for consumers to bring products back to the shop does not always prefigure the reuse of materials but ensures the heap of NICTs on giant dumps of precision machined parts that are remarkable, but considered obsolete. This waste is frequently found in countries in the South, particularly in India, China and West Africa. Entire beaches are often sacrificed to accommodate the D3E from the North, and it is not uncommon for no public regulatory body to be responsible for the sites. But the on-the-fly recovery of metals and components that we consume quickly leads to rare and fatal cancers.
As a result of extraction, mines no longer offer good metal yields: electronic waste is therefore becoming more valuable, and is now called "urban deposits". And with good reason: there is three times more gold in a ton of mobile phones than in a ton of gold ore [29].
What kind of accountability for the user of NICTs?
On average, a French person consumes 8 kg of copper, 5 kg of zinc and 1 kg of nickel per year [30]; if we count the automobile, the rest of this consumption is mainly due to ICT and new household appliances. However, if the electricity consumption attributed to ICTs explodes, the energy performance of products is at a standstill: it depends mainly on the programming of new algorithms to transmit or receive data, which sooner or later reaches its limits [31]. The high technology path does not allow for a significant reduction of the energy footprint since the integration of rare metals such as hafnium or germanium; these will improve the energy performance in use, but will imply a high energy expenditure upstream.
Therefore, the user's margin is mainly in his modalities of access to the Internet: a phone connected in 3G can consume more than GSM to exchange 1Gb [32]. Of course, users can limit their GHG emissions associated with their products, by restricting open applications, avoiding using the internet, or online videos for example, an issue that we discuss in another article. From the point of view of the energy use of technologies, efforts can be made: we are not obliged to consume as much energy with our smartphone as with our refrigerator (more than 360 kWh/year) [33]!
However, the majority of eco-gestures remain vain and ineffective. Thus, David MacKay denounces the cover-up of eco-gestures: if everyone does a little bit, we will only accomplish a little bit. He notes in particular the complete ineffectiveness of the instructions to unplug chargers [34]: All the energy saved by unplugging your charger for a day is consumed in one second of driving. The energy saved by unplugging the charger for one year is equal to the energy of a single hot bath.
During all this time when the people of the North are trying to place smoke in front of their eyes, they are consuming caloriferous mountains. In the era of globalization in the 21st century, we should not be surprised to learn that we import our energy as we export our pollution. Thus, a British citizen consumes at least 40 kilowatt/hour per day directly imported from Asia, if we take into account the manufacture of manufactured objects: machine tools, household appliances, electronics, automobiles, steel etc.
During all this time, too, the multinationals are misleading consumers by making their products obsolete, by circumventing regulations, in order to revive the ever more polluting extractive machine. Thus, once a piece of equipment has been purchased, there is little margin left to reduce the overall footprint of the product: we hope we have proved it.
Hadrien Kreiss...guest columnist... watch-out-project
Notes & References
 1] Weight of the Eiffel Tower: 10,100 tons (wikipedia) x 153 = 1,545,300 tons. Divided by 66 million French people: about 23 kg of WEEE per person per year in France and in the Doms. Source: Electrical and Electronic Equipment, Annual Data Report 2013, WEEE Registry, 2014, p.65 To be downloaded from :
2] The digital divide is also occurring within the countries of the North. In 2009, only 48 % of French households with less than 1000 € per month had a computer, compared to 84 % of those with 2300 to 3100 €/month, according to G. Found in his speech at the Ubuntu Party on 29/11/2015 at the Cité des Sciences, on the theme: The ecological blind spot of digital, to be consulted on :
3] The Internet infrastructure was already using 7% of the world's energy in 2002, ICTs as a whole would now consume 12 to 15% of the global electricity production, see : Boenisch G., Flipo F., Deltour F., Dobré M., Michot M., Can we believe in green ICT? Digital Technologies and the Environmental Crisis, Communication Issues, No. 23, 2013, §.3; URL :
4] According to Consoglobe, the Internet consumes more electricity than Germany, the sixth largest consumer behind India:
7] Bihouix P., De Guillebon B., What future for metals? Rarification of metals, a new challenge for society, EDP Sciences, 2010, p.46. For telephones, sales figures have been stable for the last 3 years. See :
8] See the article Metal Energy on :
9] European Commission, Working Group on defining critical raw materials, Critical raw materials for the EU, Report of the Ad-hoc working group, 2010, p.36 et seq. ; URL :
10] Commissariat général à la stratégie et à la prospective, Barreau B., Hossie G., Lutfalla S., Approvisionnements en métaux critiques, Un enjeu pour la compétitivité des industries française et européenne, 2013, p.22 [excerpt from the graph] ; URL :
11] European Commission, Working Group on defining critical raw materials, Critical raw materials for the EU, 2010, op. cit. p.79.
12] Bihouix P., De Guillebon B., Quel avenir pour les métaux, 2010, op. cit. p.46.
 13] See Deacker's analyses:; Sources provided on his site: An Environmental Analysis of Machining (PDF), Jeffrey B. Dahmus and Timothy G. Gutowski, Proceedings of 2004 ASME International Mechanical Engineering Congress, 2004 and A Power Assessment of Machining Tools (PDF), David N Kordonowy, May 2002; see also: ;
15] See the pdf presentation and the video of Jean Luc Autran, researcher at the CNRS, for the 10 years of EcoInfo: "Towards eco-responsible computing? "(23 April 2015):, p.13 ;
16] Gras A., Le choix du feu, Aux origines de la crise climatique, 2007, fayard, p.46.
18] Information from the table :
19] Information exchanged at the Nano-Responsibilities Forum, November 25, 2015 in Paris; see the report :
21] Information exchanged at the Nano-Responsibilities Forum, November 25, 2015 in Paris; see the report :
22] Idem.
24] Information exchanged at the Nano-Responsibilities Forum, November 25, 2015 in Paris; see the report :
25] ADEME, Annual report on the implementation of the regulation on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), 2013, op. cit. p.39.
26] G. Trouvé, intervention at the Ubuntu Party on 29/11/2015 at the Cité des sciences, on the theme: The ecological blind spot of digital, to be consulted on :
27] See information on Eric Drezer's article on :
28] Information exchanged at the Nano-Responsibilities Forum, November 25, 2015 in Paris; see the report :
29] The quantity of gold ore in 1 ton of mobile phones is estimated at 15 grams, according to G. Found in his speech at the Ubuntu Party on 29/11/2015 at the Cité des Sciences, on the theme: The ecological blind spot of digital, to be consulted on : According to Bihouix, 5 grams recovered in 1 ton of gold ore according to the interview conducted by Basta! mag with Philippe Bihouix:
30] Bihouix P., De Guillebon B., What future for metals? 2010, op. cit., p.23, or see page 6 of the document:
32] See the source cited by Fabrice Flipo in L'infrastructure numérique en question, Entropia, N°3, 2007, p.2 URL : M. Faist Emmenegger, R. Frischknecht, M. Stutz, M. Guggisberg, R. Witschi & T. Otto, LCA of the mobile communication system UMTS, in SETAC, 11th LCA Case Studies Symposium - Abstracts, 2003, p.105-10".
34] Levraud J. P.; Le Boudec J-Y., L'énergie durable - pas seulement du vent! David J.C. MacKay, Un synopsis en dix pages, Institut Pasteur, EPFL, 2010, p.3; to be downloaded at :

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