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The Material Basis of ICT

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Wäger, Patrick A., Roland Hischier, and Rolf Widmer. 2015. “The Material Basis of ICT.” In ICT Innovations for Sustainability, edited by Lorenz M. Hilty and Bernard Aebischer, 310:209–21. Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Technologies for storing, transmitting, and processing information have made astounding progress in dematerialization. The amount of physical mass needed to represent one bit of information has dramatically decreased in the last few years, and is still declining. However, information will always need a material basis. In this chapter, we address both the upstream (from mining to the product) and the downstream (from the product to final disposal) implications of the composition of an average Swiss end-of-life (EoL) consumer ICT device from a materials perspective. Regarding the upstream implications, we calculate the scores of the MIPS material rucksack indicator and the ReCiPe mineral resource depletion indicator for selected materials contained in ICT devices, namely polymers, the base metals Al, Cu, and Fe, and the geochemically scarce metals Ag, Au, and Pd. For primary production of one kg of raw material found in consumer ICT devices, the highest material rucksack and resource depletion scores are obtained for the three scarce metals Ag, Au, and Pd; almost the entire material rucksack for these metals is determined by the mining and refining processes. This picture changes when indicator scores are scaled to their relative mass per kg average Swiss EoL consumer ICT device: the base metals Fe and in particular Cu now score much higher than the scarce metals for both indicators. Regarding the downstream implications, we determine the effects of a substitution of primary raw materials in ICT devices with secondary raw materials recovered from EoL consumer ICT devices on both indicator scores. According to our results, such a substitution leads to benefits which are highest for the base metals, followed by scarce metals. The recovery of secondary raw materials from EoL consumer ICT devices can significantly reduce the need for primary raw materials and subsequently the material rucksacks and related impacts. However, increased recycling is not a panacea: the current rapid growth of the materials stock in the technosphere necessitates continuous natural resource depletion, and recycling itself is ultimately limited by thermodynamics.

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