Fast fashion and the war on plastics have become two well-known contributors to the ongoing issue of excessive consumerism which is impacting heavily on the environment.
As the problem of climate change intensifies, people are becoming more conscious of the clothes they wear and the materials they use but at the same time the majority are largely unaware of the extent of our dependence on rapidly depleting resources.
Expert in material science Dr Eoin Flynn spoke to The Echo about the vast array of elements and materials that we are deftly getting through without consideration of what happens when it all runs out.
“Smartphones are an acme of science and engineering,” Dr Flynn said, “ But few realise just how impressive and problematic an array of materials make up a phone.” Dr Flynn explained that of the 118 elements in the periodic table, 83 of which are stable and non-radioactive, 70 of them can be found in smartphones with the typical phone containing at least 60.
“Each year more and more elements are finding uses in smart devices and other advancing technologies. Each year the demand for existing technologies grows with emerging markets. There are ever more advanced alloys, batteries and plastics, and so ever more impressive component lists. Smartphones are just a single, high-tech consumer product that perfectly emphasises the issue.
“The same excessive harvesting of materials is carried out in the name of any smart device that you can think of. Laptops, tablets, PCs, cars, aircraft, ships, buildings, musical instruments, toys… the list goes on.” Unfortunately, as Dr Flynn outlined, it’s not just advanced products.
“Any list of simple items will contain a surprising diversity of materials. Our food packaging is made from oil-derived plastics. Cutlery made from silver. Currency made from nickel. Neodymium in magnets. Aluminium, calcium, oxygen, silicon and sulphur in cement. Anything you can name, human-made or naturally occurring, is likely to contain something surprising and finite,” Dr Flynn explained.
In terms of a timeframe on the available reserves of these precious materials, Dr Flynn said the source of many of these vital materials is running low.
“The metals we use in smart devices. Reserves of these are dwindling at alarming rates.
“At current usage levels there are somewhere between 250-350 years of aluminium remaining, copper reserves are expected to be depleted in 38 years, gold in just 18 years, nickel in 30, 20 for silver, 15 for tin, and titanium about 200 years.” Dr Flynn said that while some of these timelines, such as aluminium and titanium seem outside of immediate concern, this is not the case.
“Those predictions are based on current usage levels. Our appetite for these elements is voracious and increasing daily. 200+ years will fall too far more concerning timescales in the coming decades.” Turning his attention to the elements that are expected to be depleted within the next for years, such as gold, copper, nickel, silver and tin, Dr Flynn said that as demand rises these timelines will also reduce having serious consequences, not just on our lifestyles and the availability of luxury items, but also on the safety of devices, cars and buildings.
“Getting stuck with not-quite-so-smart-phones is the loss of a luxury, but, having not quite so safe cars, less structurally sound buildings, or inadequately functioning medical equipment; these are more critical, and far more troubling losses.“ Moving on to discussing other resources, such as plastic, Dr Flynn said this substance is literally everywhere and the vast majority of it is derived from the most infamously finite resource of all – oil.
“The casings of our TVs, laptops, phones, fridges, freezers, ovens, washing machines and dryers are all made of plastic. The interior of our cars (in fact about half of everything in cars) is plastic. The floors we walk on, the shoes we walk in, the very fibres of our clothes - all plastic.
“The packaging of almost everything we purchase is some form of plastic. Plastic is in the exfoliating beads of luxury shower gels. It’s in the sutures that keep our wounded flesh intact. Plastic makes up our prophylactics and our baby-bottles.
“Even the “glasses” we wear to correct our vision are made, despite the name, of plastic.” Dr Flynn highlighted other things that people rarely consider which are running out at an alarming rate.
“Phosphorous is used in fertilizers, so its depletion will lead to a reduction in crop yields and therefore threaten food supplies.
“It’s also needed to produce; phosphoric acid for your Coca-cola; certain specialist application glass; steel; and, in the form of black phosphorus, future electronic devices.” Dr Flynn said that phosphorus is so important that it was listed as a critical raw material, with significant threat to supply, by the EU in 2014.
Another non-metallic element facing extinction is Helium.
“It’s mostly known for being squandered on childrens’ party balloons and for making peoples’ voices sound ridiculous. However,” Dr Flynn emphasized, “helium is spectacularly important.
“Although it is the second most abundant element in the universe, on Earth helium is vanishingly rare. It’s required as a cooling medium for the superconducting magnets in MRI scanners, making it one of the most precious commodities of our medical technologies.
“If you develop a brain tumour you had better hope we still have helium…” Citing a study printed in a prestigious scientific journal, Dr Flynn sand is also becoming a rarity.
“That may seem absurd, but it’s true.” Dr Flynn said a 2017 study looked at the global volume of sand and gravel, among other substances used in construction and found that these two commodities are the most extracted group of materials worldwide, “exceeding fossil fuels and biomass.” The study went on to say sand scarcity is an emerging issue with major sociopolitical, economic and environmental implications.
Dr Flynn hammered home the significance of this find, saying: “If the planet is running out of materials that at one point would have been considered so abundant as to be virtually infinite. This is disconcerting, to say the least. We seem to be running out of everything…” The overarching issue here, according to Dr Flynn, is that we are consuming too much.
“All of the problems we face, CO2 emissions, resource depletion, ecosystem destruction, environmental degradation, microplastics, you name it, their ultimate cause is excess consumption. We consume far more than we need, whether we’re talking about clothing, food, electronics, or energy.” The bottom line is, we consume too much.” Dr Flynn said that as a society, we must look for greater meaning in life than materialistic possessions.
“We must find greater meaning in life than owning huge houses, vulgar cars, or empty materialism. The richness of experience - learning, skills, love, music, art, nature, conversation, compassion, charity - these are the secrets to happiness and meaning in life, and they are, for the most part, free and immaterial.”