It is probably against the laws of man and nature to suggest innovation lacks value. Even when innovative ideas fail, they often foster new concepts and products (think: Radar Ranges—the precursor to the microwave oven for example). If there’s a problem with innovation, it’s that it doesn’t take into account the growing issue of life cycles and long-term outcomes. The lure of today’s gadget-rich society is irresistible to many of us. That’s the real conundrum with digital innovation—we love the convenience and how smart these machines make us feel—but we don’t have a clue of what it truly costs (environmentally speaking) to produce them, recharge them, recycle or destroy them throughout their life cycle.
The fact that it is illegal in 50 states and the District of Columbia to throw your cell phone, netbook, notebook computer, iPAD, Kindle, iPOD or most any other lithium battery fueled electronic device into the trash ought to tell us something. We have a huge electronic waste problem in this country—one that technology companies—seem all too happy to export to other countries and hide from their end-users. We scrap about 400 million units per year of consumer electronics in the United States, according to recycling industry experts. Rapid advances in technology mean that electronic products become obsolete far more quickly. We toss out working devices at an alarming rate. The recent switch from analog to digital television is a great example of forced obsolescence. Did anybody really think about what to do with all these old lead-filled cathode ray televisions? The Environmental Protection Agency estimates there are now over 99 million television sets in U.S. homes that are no longer being used. Where will they go?
If there is a time, place and case for “green leadership” now would be an opportune time. Even if you aren’t convinced breezing around the Internet endangers the environment, or that e-mails are more eco-friendly, it’s interesting to note the annual energy consumed in transmitting and deleting SPAM is equivalent to the electricity used in 2.4 million U.S. homes and has the same carbon footprint as driving a car around the globe 1.6 million times. It’s not just what you or I do with our computers that matter; it’s what others do as well. Oh, and that 12 hours a week of Internet browsing—that’s about 300 pounds of coal per year, per person, to fuel the power plant that creates our electricity.
The Earth Day celebrations this week were a perfect reminder of the importance of having a deep understanding of what’s at work in this brave new digital world. It’s time to kick green leadership and greener innovation into high gear. The planet’s counting on us.