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Spatially Explicit Assessment of Environmental Impacts in the Electronics Sector
thesisposted on 19.12.2021, 14:20 by Kali Diane FrostKali Diane Frost
As society rapidly migrates to digitized services, the Information, Communications, and Technology (ICT) sector is projected to sustain a 16% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) over the next five years, surpassing $1 trillion in revenue by 2024. The hardware infrastructure that supports ICT growth, such as semiconductor chips and hard disk drives (HDDs), is also experiencing parallel growth trajectories. Thus, large technology companies need to understand the environmental implications of growth in these vital components within their supply chains, as they strive to reach ambitious targets for carbon, water, and waste reduction.
Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a powerful tool for measuring environmental impacts along the life cycle of a product and is implemented here to measure emissions and resource use in the semiconductor and HDD manufacturing supply chains, and to quantify the benefits of circularity for HDD components. However, to understand how environmental impacts of a manufacturing process relate to the landscapes (i.e. ecosystems) where manufacturing occurs, one must look to methods beyond LCA.
Footprinting methods are a promising tool for bridging the gap between LCA process data inventories and site-specific impacts on ecosystems. Further, the footprint assesses the total volume of emission over a time period, which is aligned with the concept of absolute sustainability. As such, regionalized footprint methods for freshwater use in the semiconductor industry and toxic chemical pollution for the HDD rare earth magnet supply chain were undertaken. In each case, data from the LCA literature or custom LCAs were used as the basis for the life cycle inventory, but advanced methods including regional databases of water scarcity and toxicity factors were used to quantify and communicate impacts. Further, geographic information systems (GIS) were used to allocate emissions or water use from a manufacturing facility with their associated watershed, which enabled aggregation of data across various geographies (i.e. watershed, region, country).
This work implements multi-disciplinary methods, databases, and tools with the aim to bring water and chemical footprinting methods a step closer towards meaningful assessment of a product’s impact on local, regional, and planetary boundaries.