Networks are, therefore, large consumers of copper, while all of our equipment requires for its technological functions, a quantity of small metals (tantalum, gallium, germanium), and precious metals (gold, platinum). Although consumed in very small quantities, these metals have quickly become indispensable, because of their exceptional characteristics that boost the performance of our equipment. This consumption takes place against a backdrop of sharply rising global demand for metals both in terms of volume and diversity of metals consumed.
While there is no medium-term risk of depletion of metal resources, this strong growth in demand may lead to supply tensions, linked in particular to the economic interdependence between metals, which structurally constrain the availability of certain small metals, or to competition between uses.
The extraction and refining of these metals requires energy, mostly carbon-based, and large amounts of water, and contributes to increasing greenhouse gas emissions and water stress in producing countries.
At the other end of the chain, the growth in material consumption is reflected in the growth of waste. Since the early 2000s, because of the growth in consumption and the accelerating pace of equipment replacement, the amount of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) generated annually worldwide has been increasing. It is expected to reach 52 million tons in 2021 (compared with 45 million tons in 2016), a quarter of which is digital waste. Most of this waste is landfilled, burned, or has been illegally traded and treated in an unsafe manner. This lack of end-of-life management is all the more worrisome, because WEEE is a hazardous and polluting waste.
The traditional response to the problems associated with the growing consumption of metals needed to fuel our digital consumption model, and the waste it produces, has been, and is still largely limited to recycling policies. Yet, while the major metals (copper, iron, etc.) and precious metals (gold, platinum) are relatively well recycled, the majority are recycled very little. In particular, almost all small metals used for high-tech functions in the digital sector are hardly ever recycled.
Several technical or economic reasons limit the development of the recycling of these metals
- These small metals, present in very small quantities, are most often used in the form of complex alloys. However, although these alloys make it possible to increase performance, particularly in energy efficiency, and make it possible to miniaturize equipment, they make recycling extremely complex.
- The industrialization of recycling processes in the digital environment is further complicated by the multiplicity of equipment.
- Metals undergo a "degradation of use": the recycled metal may lose some of its technological performance.
Moreover, with the growth in our consumption, and the time and space gap between production and recycling, recycling our equipment will never cover all our needs.
Faced with environmental challenges, recycling the metals contained in digital equipment cannot, therefore, be the only answer, and must be accompanied by policies aimed at reducing our consumption of primary materials.
This « document de travail, » the first in a series of three documents, is based on the work presented at a series of seminars on the environmental impact of digital technology held at France Stratégie in 2018-2019.
The opinions expressed in these documents are those of the authors
and are not intended to reflect the government's position