Social and ecological issues

The raw materials used in the production of electronic and mechanical systems can have a severe impact on the environment.

Gold and copper are used for circuit boards, vehicle parts and components. The raw materials are extracted from mined ore. Large areas of land are cleared to dig mines, sometimes destroying natural habitats. Surrounding areas can also be affected by waste chemicals, the burning of fossil fuels and polluted water, all of which can all be harmful to the environment.

Gold has been used for centuries to produce jewellery and precious artefacts. It is an excellent conductor of electricity and, because it doesn’t corrode or tarnish, it is a popular choice for circuits. Gold is a rare metal commonly found in Australia, China and Russia, and is therefore expensive. Copper is commonly used in electronics because it is a good conductor of electricity. Copper is malleable and ductile and therefore is an excellent choice for making wires.

Electronic and mechanical products use tiny quantities of rare earth metals such as neodymium used in magnets, or praseodymium, used to strengthen metals in aircraft engines. These materials are critical to their production and have a limited, finite supply; they should be recycled where possible. Otherwise, they need to be disposed of carefully as they can lead to long-term pollution problems.

Plastics for making product cases, breadboards and insulation come from oil that has to be drilled from underground. Drilling for oil releases toxic chemicals into the atmosphere and surrounding water sources. If it leaks, either from the drill site or while being transported, oil is extremely harmful to wildlife. When sites are cleared for drilling, deforestation affects human and animal populations by damaging water supplies, drainage and habitats. Transporting raw materials and then processing them into a usable form also harms the environment by creating CO2 emissions from vehicles and factories.

A landscape image of an oil rig site with a grassy hillside and blue sky.
An oil drill site

Oil and metal ores are finite resources and will eventually run out; as they become less available, the cost rises and more land is destroyed in an attempt to find more. Designers, scientists and engineers are constantly looking for new ways of producing products without harming the environment - for example, using rechargeable batteries rather than increasing the amount of batteries that need disposal, or creating products out of renewable resources such as fast-growing bamboo or recycled metals.

Production of electronic and mechanical components can produce a range of materials that are dangerous to dispose of, such as lead, mercury and cadmium. The Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) is a UK law that restricts the use of hazardous substances and controls the disposal of unavoidably used materials. Designers need to be aware of these restrictions when designing new products. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) aims to control the disposal of products after consumers have used them - for example, how dangerous materials, such as mercury, are disposed of.

Whenever environmental impact is to be reduced, ‘the 6 Rs’ can be addressed to ensure an in-depth analysis has been done. The 6 Rs can be considered by the designer, the manufacturer and the consumer to reduce the negative impact on the environment.

Environmental considerations for designers, and the 6 Rs

The 6 Rs, reduce, reuse, recycle, rethink, refuse and repair illustrated around a rubbish bin.
  • Reduce - Can the amount of materials used be reduced? Can the components be bought locally to reduce product miles?
  • Reuse - Can the electrical and mechanical products be reused for another purpose once a product is finished with?
  • Recycle - Can the electrical and mechanical products be disposed of correctly so that they can be recycled to create another product, like using circuit boards set in resin to make a decorative product?
  • Rethink - Can the way a product is made be redesigned so that less material is used?
  • Refuse - Is it feasible to refuse to upgrade electrical products if they are still working, rather than changing products as soon as an improved version is released?
  • Repair - When a product is broken, can it be repaired rather than discarded?