One of the most pressing issues facing us today is the impact our gadget-laden lives has on the planet. As the demand for the latest smartphone, TV or tablet grows, the impact of manufacturing and disposing these gadgets is putting growing pressure on the environment. We spoke to former Australian of the Year and climate change expert Professor Tim Flannery about the importance of technology in helping solve the environmental damage our gadget lust has on the planet.
Manufacturing Environmental Change with Technology
"In terms of the volume of manufacturing, [the growing number of gadget purchases]would be adding a significant portion of the greenhouse gases," Professor Flannery tells us in a phone interview.
It's an issue we, as gadget lovers, generally fail to think about. Every year, we buy a new mobile phone. Every few years, it's a new computer, a new TV. Slightly longer than that and we're buying new games consoles, new speaker systems, new iPods. But what happens to the older models these new gadgets are replacing? How many end up in the bin, to be taken to landfill where they start to decompose, letting rare (and sometimes poisonous) metals seep back into the earth? The answer, simply put, is too many.
So how do we reverse this situation? Professor Flannery thinks it comes down to two main approaches.
"The key to that sort of thing, really, is recycling and a shift to a low-emissions economy - so we're getting our energy sources from renewable resources that don't contribute to the greenhouse gas problem. Between those two, you have a very powerful tool, really, for reducing the impact that manufacturing has on the planet."
Recycling is an interesting proposition. While we've readily reached a point in Australian society where recycling household cardboard, glass and plastics is common place, the same cannot be said for recycling electronics. Finding out how and where you can recycle items like CRT TVs and computer monitors - and to a lesser extent mobile phones and portable gadgets - generally involves a lot more work than putting them in a different coloured bin each week. But professor Flannery believes that as time goes on and the materials inside these electronics get rarer, recycling will become a much more popular alternative.
"[Recycling electronics]is harder, but it's also the case that the products are also much more high value. I think that as rare earths and so forth become more limited, and metal prices and commodity prices go up, the incentive for that sort of recycling is only going to increase.
"But it can be helped by government mandating that a percentage of materials has to be from recycled materials and so forth, so you can have a legislative framework as well to assist with that."
Leading manufacturers are already doing a very good job of trying to create an environmentally conscious lineup of products, according to Professor Flannery.
"[The leading companies]are investing heavily in R&D, particularly to minimise electricity use for any of their products - delivering the same service but with less electric use, which only comes about through innovation.
"They're also taking a lead in whole of lifecycle care, custodianship for their materials and so forth and recycling, playing a big role in recycling. And the best of them are playing a more active role in trying to encourage governments to get better regulation in place."
The Strength Of The Green Technology Ecosystem
That R&D and effort being put into creating a new class of eco-friendly gadget is already making a difference. While some people have the perception that green technology comes at the expense of performance, Professor Flannery begs to differ.
"Green technology's already a superior technology in many areas, I think. You've only got to look at some hybrid vehicles and their performance, and their ratings for safety and reliability, so they really are pretty good.
"The old days where you bought a light globe - one of the new compact fluoro light globes and it took 30 seconds for it to get bright - they're already behind. So the product does get better as time goes on. And I think that's just part of the nature of enterprise, those sort of things will occur."
While technology develops to become even more environmentally friendly, meeting the growing demand from consumers, Professor Flannery still believes that there is plenty we can do today to limit the amount of damage we do to the environment with our gadget lust. It may involve some sacrifices though.
"There are a couple of options [to reduce your personal impact to the environment] . Number one is to buy green electricity. The other is to take advantage of some of the subsidies that are available, and put some photovoltaics - you know, solar panels - on your roof so you're generating your own electricity.
"Thirdly, what we all should do is try and minimise the amount of electricity we burn, the electricity we use. So turning things off at the switch, getting rid of the beer fridge - you know the beer fridge is probably going to do more damage than 100 phone recharges, I think."
The Future Is Up To You
There's no simple solution to solving the problem of climate change, but there are still plenty of things that each individual person can do to make an impact. What's needed now more than anything, according to Professor Flannery, is people to stand up and actively try to do their part in minimising the effect of their technology usage.
"It's all about leadership, really. If you just buy the middle-of-the-road, or the cheapest, and just allow the environment to carry the cost of inefficient energy and so forth, you just become part of the problem.
"If you support the leaders, and invest a bit in the future and reduce your own electricity costs, you become one of the leaders. And we need more leaders in the world."