This page explains how to analyze sustainability issues associated with an electronics experiment and its applications using the 4E technique.

More sustainability information appears on http://sustainability-and-ics.pbworks.com/ [1]. Sustainability describes a condition in which natural systems and social systems survive and thrive together indefinitely [2]. A sustainable condition allows people to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs [3]. Because humanity now consumes and pollutes the Earth’s resources faster than natural and human systems can replenish and clean them, we do not currently live in a sustainable manner [4].

4E sustainability analysis uses perspectives from Energy, Environment, Economics, and social or political Equity, four “E”s of sustainability, to explain how an electronics experiment or applications related to the experiment contribute to or prevent sustainability [6]. Asking the following questions can help determine which Energy, Environment, Economics, and social or political Equity issues to use:


  1. Which natural resources and ecosystem services do the experiment and its applications use directly and indirectly?
  2. Which natural resources and ecosystem services does the experiment improve or harm?
  3. What ecological impacts result? Where? How much?
  4. How do the experiment or its applications impact other species?


  1. How much energy do the experiment and its applications use?
  2. From which sources?
  3. Are the energy sources renewable, efficient, or polluting?
  4. What impacts result?
  5. Ensure that all material and energy inputs and outputs are as inherently safe and benign as possible.


  1. What economic impacts result? Consider:
    •  Human Capital What people do.
    •  Financial Capital Monetary instruments.
    •  Manufactured or Real Capital Made by people and their tools.
    •  Natural Capital The Earth's resources and bio-capacity.
  2. How much does the experiment cost? Who pays?
  3. How much does the experiment earn? Who profits?
  4. When do costs and benefits accrue?
  5. What inputs does the experiment require?
  6. When do experiment products emerge?
  7. How long do products exist?
  8. What maintenance or operation costs exist?
  9. What happens after the experiment and its applications end?

social and political Equity

  1. Who does the experiment and its applications impact?
    Who are the direct and indirect stakeholders?
  2. How do the experiment and its applications benefit or harm various stakeholders?
  3. To what extent do stakeholders benefit equally? Pay equally?
  4. Do the experiment and its applications create any inequities?
  5. Consider various stakeholders' locations, communities, access to resources, economic power, knowledge, skills, and political power.


Also relevant are Commoner’s laws of ecology, which sound unsurprisingly similar to laws of physics:

  • Everything connects to everything else

  • Everything must go somewhere

  • Nature knows best and bats last

  • There is no such thing as a free lunch [5].

The green engineering design principles[21] offer additional design advice:

  1. Engineer processes and products holistically, use systems analysis, and integrate environmental impact assessment tools.
  2. Conserve and improve natural ecosystems while protecting human health and well-being.
  3. Use life-cycle thinking in all engineering activities.
  4. Ensure that all material and energy inputs and outputs are as inherently safe and benign as possible.
  5. Minimize depletion of natural resources.
  6. Strive to prevent waste.
  7. Develop and apply engineering solutions, while being cognizant of local geography, aspirations, and cultures.
  8. Create engineering solutions beyond current or dominant technologies; improve, innovate, and invent (technologies) to achieve sustainability.
  9. Actively engage communities and stakeholders in development of engineering solution



  1. D. Braun and Cal Poly Electrical and Computer Engineering Students, “Cal Poly’s wiki for Sustainability in Integrated Circuits,” Available: http://sustainability-and-ICs.pbworks.com/. Accessed January 16, 2009].
  2. S. R. Euston and W. E. Gibson, “The Ethic of Sustainability,” Earth Ethics 6, 1995 p. 5-7. Available: http://www.iisd.org/sd/principle.aspx?pid=31&display=1. [Accessed Sept. 19, 2010].
  3. The World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, chaired by Norwegian Prime-Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, 1987.
  4. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Current State and Trends, Volume 1, Eds. R. Hassan, R. Scholes, & N. Ash, Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2005, p. 827-838. “MA Findings Animated slides,” Available: http://www.maweb.org/en/SlidePresentations.aspx, [Accessed Dec. 31, 2010]
  5. B. Commoner, The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972, pp. 16-24.
  6. P. Hawken, A. Lovins, and L.H. Lovins, Natural Capitalism. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1999, pp. 49-50, 57-58. Available: http://www.natcap.org/images/other/NCchapter3.pdf [Accessed March 22, 2006].
  7. E. Williams, “Environmental impacts in the production of personal computers,” in Computers and the Environment: Understanding and Managing Their Impacts, R. Kuehr and E. Williams, Eds. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2003, pp. 41-72.
  8. G. Van de Kerk and A. R. Manuel, “A comprehensive index for a sustainable society: The SSI — the Sustainable Society Index,” Ecological Economics vol. 66 no. 2-3, pp. 228-242, 2008.
  9. Olaitan Ojuroye, as cited in Paul L. Bishop, Pollution Prevention: Fundamentals and Practice Long Grove, IL: Waveland, 2004, p. 584.
  10. W. McDonough, as quoted in “Waste = Food (An inspiring documentary on the Cradle to Cradle design concept)” 2006 [Podcast television program] Directed by R. van Hattum. The Netherlands: VPRO. Available: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-3058533428492266222. [Accessed September 1, 2008] Or http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2007/05/15/18416351.php. [Accessed March 25, 2011]
  11. Author Unknown, “IBM Unveils New Wafer Solar Power Recycling Process,” Energy Policy TV - Solar Channel, Available: http://video.energypolicytv.com/displaypage.php?vkey=70fe748e6982b3439ad3&channel=Solar. [Accessed October 30, 2007].
  12. S. Gaudin, “Intel's New 45nm Penryn Plant Goes Green,” Computerworld, October 30, 2007. Available: http://www.pcworld.com/article/id,139089-c,intel/article.html. [Accessed: October 30, 2007].
  13. M. Michalovic, " Tantalum, Congo, and Your Cell Phone," ChemMatters, October 2007, pp. 16-18.
  14. A. Koehler and C. Som, “Effects of Pervasive Computing on Sustainable Development,” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, 2005 p. 15-23. Available: http://www.ieeessit.org/technology_and_society/free_sample_article.asp?ArticleID=1. [Accessed: October 30, 2007].
  15. Jeff Johnson, "A Tsunami of Electronic Waste," Chemical & Engineering News, vol. 86 no. 21, 2008, pp. 32-33, Available: http://pubs.acs.org/cen/government/86/8621gov1.html [Accessed June 3, 2008].
  16. P. Stamets, “6 ways mushrooms can save the world,” TED Talk, March 2008. [Podcast lecture] Available: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/paul_stamets_on_6_ways_mushrooms_can_save_the_world.html. [Accessed: September 1, 2008]
  17. P. Senge, The Fifth Discipline, New York: Doubleday, 1990, pp. 373-391.
  18. P. Ehrlich & A. Ehrlich, One with Nineveh: Politics, Consumption, and the Human Future, Washington DC: Island Press, 2005, pp. 261-262.
  19. University Leaders for a Sustainable Future, The Talloires Declaration, 2001, Available: http://www.ulsf.org/programs_talloires_td.html. [Accessed Sept. 29, 2006]
  20. G. Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science vol. 162 no. 3859, pp. 1243-1248, 1968. Available: http://www.sciencemag.org/sciext/sotp/commons.dtl. [Accessed: March 22, 2006]
  21. Developed by more than 65 engineers and scientists at the Green Engineering: Defining the Principles Conference, held in Sandestin, Florida in May of 2003. The preliminary principles forged at this multidisciplinary conference are intended for engineers to use as guidance in the design or redesign of products and processes within the constraints dictated by business, government, and society such as cost, safety, performance and environmental impact. From U.S. EPA, What is Green Engineering, Sept. 13, 2007, Available: www.epa.gov/oppt/greenengineering/pubs/whats_ge.html. [Accessed: Jan. 16, 2009]
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