Hardware Sustainability


Student materials


Ethics background required: Ideally, students should be familiar with the 4 ethical frameworks presented in the first year curriculum (virtue ethics, deontology, utilitarianism, analogies). If they (or the professor) are not, a brief summary is provided in the reflection.

Subject matter referred to in this lab: technological devices and sustainability.

Placement in overall ethics curriculum:

Time required:

Learning objectives: Students will

Ethical dilemma or issue to be considered:

With more technological innovation, people are able to do things they never could before. Healthcare is available to rural areas. Businesses are making more money. However, as humans create more technology, we also create more e-waste. Should we continue to develop new technology knowing it creates more waste? Where and how should we dispose of our e-waste? This lab is designed to get students to identify one or more ethical dilemmas and evaluate them through an ethical framework.


Preparation: Read through the entire lab. Prepare a slide for the introduction (if needed) and print out student handouts.

Guide for Instructors

Lesson plan

Introduction (5 minutes)

Read or summarize to students: Today we are going to look at the ways that the prolific production of new technology affects our lives. New devices increase our ability to communicate, provide healthcare to rural areas, and make our lives more fun and efficient. However, there are downsides as well. Some of those downsides are ethically questionable. We will consider together these ups and downs and questions to consider when new technology is produced.

Activity (20 minutes)

Divide the class into groups of 2-3 and assign each group to answer one of the 7 questions on the student handout by looking for resources online. We have provided some answers that were correct when the lab was written just to give you, the instructor, an idea. (10 minutes)

Question #1: How have personal electronic devices improved medicine?

Question #2: How have electronics in general improved medicine?

Question #3: How have electronic devices improved the environment?

Question #4: How many mobile devices do individuals have on average? Why are people not keeping their devices longer?

Question #5: What is e-waste, and how much e-waste accumulates in one year?

Question #6: Can e-waste be recycled? What are the benefits?

Question #7: Where is e-waste from the U.S. currently discarded?

Bring the students back together to report their answers to the assigned question (10 minutes).

Reflection as a class (20 minutes)

A student could, however, argue that the effects on the environment would harm not only people, but wildlife and greenery, thus making the costs the bigger impact


  1. Identify the ethical dilemma concerning e-waste and technology.

  2. Give two examples of how technology has benefited our society.

  3. Current approaches to AI produce highly accurate results at the cost of executing an enormous amount of instructions thus contributing to a very high carbon footprint. Green AI is an area of research that tries to find a balance between accuracy and efficiency. Argue in support of Green AI using virtue ethics, deontology (is there a set of rules you can use?), or utilitarianism.

See Dodge, Smith, and Etzioni (2020).

Online teaching

This lesson is easily adapted to an asynchronous online environment where a student would complete the assignment individually and then post some of their ideas while also responding to the ideas of others.

Additional information

Inspired by work from Inclezan and Pradanos (2014).


Dodge, R Schwartz andJ, N. A. Smith, and O Etzioni. 2020. “Green AI.” Communications of the ACM, December.

Inclezan, Daniela, and Luis Pradanos. 2014. “Promoting Ecoliteracy in an Introductory Database Systems Course: Activities for the First Week.” In Proceedings of the 45th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education, 573–78. SIGCSE ’14. New York, NY, USA: Association for Computing Machinery. https://doi.org/10.1145/2538862.2538909.