When e-learning isn’t green learning

21 Feb
February 21, 2013

E-learning has grown in popularity as devices such as the PC, laptop, flat screen TV, tablet and smartphone are now in virtually every western home.  But what about the real cost of this technology and its effect on both people and planet?  I wonder if it’s time we should start looking at green learning.


Green, as they say, is the new black – or so it would seem.  Much talk in business today centres around sustainability, impact of doing business, carbon footprints and green energy.  According to the Guardian Customers at the UK’s leading supermarkets used 43% fewer carrier bags in 2009-10 than they did in 2006, when figures were first recorded, with 6.1bn single-use bags used in 2009-10 against 10.7bn four years earlier.    We are starting to embrace the concept that our parents had of the reusable bag.

We’re making progress with reusable bags – or so we’re told – but we seem blind to the impact that our use of technology in delivering learning may have on our planet and our fellow humans.

An article in The Economist caught my eye.  This article mentioned that e-waste (the fancy term for PCs, laptops, tablets, smartphones and so on) was growing at three times the rate of other rubbish, fuelled mainly by the growth of gadgets coupled with their diminishing lifespan.

Think about it for a moment.  We buy toasters for a few pounds and are appalled if they fail to last a lifetime but are happy to spend upwards of £500 for an iPhone that we know will be almost unusable in a few years’ time.

In 1998 America threw away 20 million computers.  By 2009, that figure had risen to 47.2 million computers.  By contrast China, who have far more people but are nowhere near as developed overall as the west, threw away 160 million appliances and according to research by the Pike Consultancy  this type of waste will more than double in the next 15 years.

We all love our gadgets – oh, how we love them – and so we should, because the metals in all our e-devices make us 40 to 50 richer than trying to dig up the raw materials, so it makes sense for us to recycle and recover what we have rather than starting from scratch.

Big companies who are organised in the right way can extract up to 95% of the recyclable materials.  This is great; however, in poorer countries this recycling is done by hand, not machine.  This means that unprotected, unsupported workers are potentially handling your e-waste.  This isn’t all floppy disks and mice; this extraction of rare metals is labour intensive and dangerous.  The standard way of separating out all the valuable metals is by boiling circuit boards on stoves and then leaching the metals with acid.

Workers risk burns, inhalation of toxic fumes and lead poisoning.  A study by a local university where these practices are commonplace also found high miscarriage rates in women.  So our shiny new e-devices of today could be potentially killing someone in a few years’ time.

Business context

We’re not about to reduce our reliance on e-devices any time soon, if at all, but perhaps it’s time.  As business leaders we say that sustainability is important. If that’s the case then shouldn’t we also consider the impact that our e-devices are having on the planet?

Take Apple as an example – and I realise there are so many other electronics companies, but Apple’s figures were easily available.  Since their introduction their key products have sold almost 700 million units – the vast majority of which will be thrown away.  Here are the numbers:

  • 321 million iPods
  • 120 million iPads
  • 250 million iPhones

It’s often mentioned that classroom training is dead – or if not dead, then certainly not very well – yet as far as we know classroom training isn’t killing people, doesn’t contain toxic substances and isn’t causing higher levels of miscarriage.  Shows such as the hugely popular Learning Technologies are filled with e-devices – as you would expect – but there is little, if any consideration for the disposal or longer term implications.


We’re not going to change the world in an instant but perhaps – just perhaps – there’s a chance for us all to make a difference in the way we use and dispose of our e-devices.

Call to action

Contact a reputable e-devices disposal business and make sure that all the e-devices from your business are recycled in a safe manner.

And finally

This Sunday (24th February) would have been Steve Jobs’ birthday.  Steve gave us so much so let’s make sure we dispose of his legacy properly.

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