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Environmental footprints in silicon sands

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SummaryThere is a Lufthansa flight which takes off every day from Bangalore

There is a Lufthansa flight which takes off every day from Bangalore. Via Frankfurt, it transports folks to the Silicon Valley and all over the world. It is known as the Bangalore Express, and is a preferred flight for tech industry executives, venture capitalists and others associated with the technology eco-system.

Google, Amazon, Microsoft and other technology giants have started locating their datacentres by rivers. Why? These mammoth buildings, often covering square footage equal to 2-4 football fields, run thousands of computing devices and generate so much heat that river water is required to fuel their immense, power and water-hungry air-conditioning systems which prevent physical meltdowns of electronic circuits. For instance, in Oregon, Google’s datacentre has cooling towers that go up four storeys. These buildings are the factories of the internet: they stop functioning and the internet shuts down. It’s that simple.

Tin as a substance has always been associated with cans of baked beans and packaged fruits. Today, one of its major uses of tin is in electronics. Batteries, especially those used in cellphones (Lithium ion) are full of it. It is also an essential component in soldering together electronic components and so on. 30% of the world’s tin comes from two Indonesian islands: Bangka and Belitung. Here, illegal mining and child labour are rife. And an environmental catastrophe is in the making, if reports from various NGOs including Friends of the Earth are to be believed. Sub-soil has gone acidic and the water on the islands has been polluted to a point where even animals cannot consume it.

Closer to home, the pollution caused by diesel generators powering telecom towers has been well documented. And keep in mind that if there are a billion cellphones on the planet, and even a fraction need to be charged every day, they are causing a huge spike in electricity consumption. The anecdotes above point to the next frontier for the electronics and IT industry: Environmental and social sustainability.

No one cared about polluting cars when there were only a few thousand running around in a select few cities. However, when they proliferated to every corner of the civilised world, this became an agenda item for practically every government and multilateral agency. As societies around the world digitise, these issues are bound to bubble up with increasing frequency and higher velocity for the electronics industry too.

To put it in perspective, 352 million PCs were shipped

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