Abstract

Rapid technological innovation has introduced a broad spectrum of materials in the consumer electronics sector. Consumption of these materials increases the demand for water and potentially discharge contaminants into the water resources across their life cycle, exacerbating freshwater scarcity and pollution. These water impacts have not yet been fully studied, as most literature on consumer electronics focuses on supply chain energy, carbon footprint, or end of life management. Evaluating water impacts requires data on material content, life cycle water consumption and emissions at spatial level, and availability of impact assessment models that connects life cycle data to water impacts. Data on these aspects are available at varied degrees for different materials used in the electronics. This research created data on materials used in consumer electronics and studied implications on water resources for two major material categories - metals and plastics. Bill of materials (BOMs) data were created for 95 unique consumer electronic products that contain information on mass of major materials and components. Then, life cycle water impacts associated with extraction and production of metals found in consumer electronics are evaluated to identify material hotspots for future improvement. Water impacts were analyzed for individual metals and then for the representative metal profile of case study products (smartphones and laptop computers). Finally, profile of polymers and additives in the e-waste is created to understand linkage to water impacts as well to evaluate implications to establishing e-plastics circular systems. Results indicate that, on the individual material level, precious metals have the highest water impacts in their supply chain. Water scarcity impact is mainly because of water consumed directly for mining operations and indirectly for energy production, and water degradation attributed to metal emissions during mine tailings management. The geographical region where metal production happens is also a contributing factor to water impacts, as water stress varies spatially. Therefore, sourcing metals from regions with lower water stress is an opportunity to reduce supply chain water impacts. At product level, precious metals have the highest contribution per smartphone, whereas aluminum has the highest contribution per laptop. Product design changes, such as use of recycled metal or using a low impact metal are observed to reduce water impacts. Further, e-waste shows a diverse mix of polymers and additives, including flame retardants, pigments, and heavy metals that can potentially pollute water resources if released. As a result, transition to circular systems is important to keep the plastics from entering the environment. To enable this transition, multistakeholder engagement in the electronics sector is required to make an informed decisions in product design, policy planning and material recovery infrastructure.

Publication Date

5-5-2022

Document Type

Dissertation

Student Type

Graduate

Degree Name

Sustainability (Ph.D.)

Department, Program, or Center

Sustainability (GIS)

Advisor

Callie Babbitt

Advisor/Committee Member

Gabrielle Gaustad

Advisor/Committee Member

Erinn Ryen

Campus

RIT – Main Campus

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