The Hidden Cost of a Green Future

by Justin Ho
Justin is an Industrial Design student and volunteers as a Sustainability Ambassador with Humber’s Office of Sustainability. He is interested in learning more about and exploring recycling and waste management topics.
You can connect with him via email.

When we picture a green future, we often think of self driving electric cars, solar panels, and artificial intelligence. Though these technological advancements can help replace older greenhouse gas emitting products and make the world more efficient, they are not without their own environmental concerns.

All this great green innovation has only been possible because of semiconductor technologies that allow the production of computers, LED lights, and digital cameras. Some of the largest, most successful companies that exist today such as Apple, Intel, and Tesla owe much of their success to the ruthless innovation of this technology and as a result, there is great financial incentive to continue research in the industry. However there is an often less well known aspect of the industry, its significant environmental footprint.

The semiconductor industry has an infamous reputation of high energy consumption and high water usage. According to The Guardian, 5% of energy produced in Taiwan is used by the global leader of semiconductor manufacturing, TSMC . This great energy use can also contribute to a significant carbon footprint if the energy is not produced using sustainable energy sources. Semiconductor manufacturing also uses lots of water. Although the world has lots of water in the ocean, the water needed by the semiconductor industry needs to be of a very high quality. What that means for the environment is that lots of energy is used to purify the water. In times of need, such as during a drought, the government may redirect water supplies away from farms negatively affecting local farming communities. 

Many other manufacturing industries also use lots of energy and water to produce products. However, products such as those that use metals and paper can be recycled to be made into new products for only a small portion of the energy that was originally put in. While semiconductors are made to custom specifications and cannot be repurposed, recycled soda cans may only need about 5% of the amount of energy used to make the original can from raw ore. The purpose of recycling in this case would be more than just reducing material in landfills, it also means reducing the amount of energy and resources that is consumed to make a new product. Due to the fast pace of the industry, semiconductor products can get outdated very quickly and are difficult to be recycled at scale. Recycling just the material is also not very useful as chips are very small and the most intensive aspect of the manufacturing process is the custom etching process. 

Soda cans.

Finally, manufacturing of semiconductors such as solar panels also requires purification of silicon, the main type of semiconductor used in electronics today. Despite solar panels’ reputation of being the source of a clean energy source, their production requires harsh chemical acids that are not always disposed of properly. Companies in the past have been accused of dumping this type of waste into local rivers causing environmental pollution. The possible environmental damage from the production of solar panels should be considered before adopting them as an alternative energy source.

Solar panels on the roof of an Oakville home.

All hope is not lost, there have been many efforts to improve the sustainability of producing semiconductors. Currently, some plants are equipped with water reclamation systems which are able to reuse some of the water to both reduce pollution and reduce water consumption. Standards for the sustainable production of solar cells are also slowly being developed. However, it is important to understand that a green future may not be as green as it may first seem and that making just about anything comes with a cost to the environment. As such, it is important to first try to reduce consumption before looking into other methods of environmental preservation.

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