The destructive impact of the digital world on the environment is growing rapidly

Written by
World Cleanup Day
February 25, 2023

Today, before reading this blog post, you've probably already browsed some news portals, liked your friends' posts, googled some interesting topics, or scrolled through TikTok. Our day-to-day activities are closely intertwined with the digital world. We are used to thinking that through our computers and phones, we enter a separate world that has no contact with the natural environment. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Every email sent, news article clicked, photo shared or video attached generates greenhouse gases and accelerates climate change. Moreover, our digital environmental footprint comes not only from the energy required to upload the files (and the carbon emitted as a result), but also from the storage of this data throughout its lifetime.


The individual actions performed on the Internet have a relatively low energy consumption – perhaps just a few grams of carbon dioxide from the energy required to start the devices and use the Internet. But storing and moving all the data that we create requires large, powerful data centers and accounts for an ever-increasing share of global energy consumption. This is because running the servers and keeping them cool is an energy-intensive process. Although some large server farms have declared themselves carbon-neutral, this does not mean that CO2 emissions do not occur. Carbon neutrality has often been achieved through other neutralising activities, such as planting trees.


The Internet produces one billion tons of greenhouse gases


The Internet and its supporting systems currently produce about one billion tons of greenhouse gases annually. At the same time, the vast majority of data stored on the Internet is essentially waste. According to research, 90% of data is not reused after it is stored online. And 91% of web pages do not receive any traffic via Google’s search engine. These statistics give a good idea of how much data there is on the web that’s probably never intended to be used. Digital waste generates hundreds of millions of tons of greenhouse gases every year. Digital pollution hasn't received much attention yet, but it's about to become as serious a problem as single-use plastic.


The carbon footprint of the Internet and its supporting systems accounted for about 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions just a few years ago, according to Lancaster University researcher Mike Hazas. This is equal to the entire carbon footprint of all flights around the world in total annually.

These emissions are predicted to double by 2025 – with the most pessimistic predictions suggesting the Internet could account for as much as 50% of the world's energy consumption and related greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.


Single-use plastic = single-use files?

The world has already understood the problems posed by physical waste. Fish, animals and birds are not the only ones dying because of the growing garbage problem. We ourselves already eat and drink a credit card's worth of plastic every week – already considered to be a trigger, if not the cause, of many human diseases. Plastic has also been found to affect the fertility of both men and women. So there is no longer a question of whether we need to replace single-use plastic bags and coffee cups with reusable ones. Of course we must, if we want to continue to exist as a human race. But the same single-use mentality that arose with plastic has been carried over to the digital world as well. We create photos and videos on our phones that we will never look at again. We too easily like and share content, forgetting about it the very next moment that we did so. We scroll on social media out of boredom, even when it’s not giving us any value.


Huge digital landfills


If you catch yourself thinking, “How could such a small action from me have an impact?”, then try mentally multiplying this action by the number of people who could face the same dilemma. For example, around 5 trillion plastic bags are used every year for shopping. If I refuse to take a plastic bag, it might inspire others to follow my example – with each of them inspiring others in turn. In this case, giving up plastic bags potentially has a very big impact! It's the same with digital pollution. Sending one email generates about 4 grams of CO2; not a lot in itself. But about 333 billion emails are sent each year. Therefore, sending only important information by email has a significant impact in setting an example to others. To give another example, at concerts, visitors often record a relatively poor quality video image on their phones, rather than enjoying the concert. Instead, we could watch the higher quality recording often made by the organisers whenever we want to reminisce. Our decision not to record a show might inspire others to do the same. And there will be many more similar examples in our day-to-day lives.


There is a critical difference between physical and digital waste. When there is trash in the environment, we see it as a problem. We even organise World Cleanup Days to clean it up. But we do not see digital waste, and are especially blind to its impact on nature. As a result, digital waste is generated at a much faster pace than physical waste. Figuratively speaking, we have created giant digital landfills that are fuelling global warming at an ever-increasing rate. The difference with physical dumps is that we see them and recognise them as a problem. With digital dumps, we don't see them as a problem – because we simply don't see them!


6 simple steps to reduce your digital footprint


Here are five simple suggestions for reducing your digital footprint that everyone can try:


1. Start with deleting unnecessary photos, such as blurry ones, or duplicates. We tend to take multiple images just in case – to catch the best moment. Or, spurred by emotion, we record a video that we know we’ll never watch. So, keep only those photos and videos that have real value to you. Storing around 100 pictures in the cloud, along with some videos a few minutes long, is equivalent to driving a car for nearly 17 kilometres in terms of the energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. An environmentally friendly habit is to keep the best shot only, and delete the rest.


2. Unsubscribe from newsletters you no longer read. Each email sent generates 4 grams of CO2. Doesn’t seem much, does it? But if, for example, every resident of the UK sent one less mail a day, it would save as much CO2 in a year as 81,000 people not taking a flight from London to Madrid. And, every year, 62 trillion spam emails are sent. The carbon footprint of this is equivalent to that of 2 million average American households per day. So it’s more environmentally friendly to not only delete unwanted newsletters from your inbox, but also to cancel subscriptions. That way, there is less unnecessary traffic.


3. Delete all the files on your computer that you don't need anymore. You can sort them by size or date to help work out which should go. One tip: name your files carefully so that it’s easier to know what they are in future. Otherwise, sorting can be a time-consuming process.


4. Review your old email addresses and associated accounts. You might be surprised how much junk you find when returning to your old inbox. Plus, old accounts pose a security risk, so it is essential to delete them anyway.


5. Review the software on your phone and computer and delete whatever you don't need. These programs and applications often generate activity in the background that you don't even notice. Besides, they take up space and make devices slower.


6. Set your phone's default video recording to a lower resolution, i.e. HD rather than 4K. The difference in quality won’t be noticeable when you watch it on your phone, but a video recorded at a lower resolution 'weighs' much less, and therefore also has a lower carbon footprint.


3 Rs in the digital world


Just like in the world of physical consumption, the “3Rs” also apply in the digital world: “Refuse, Reduce, Reuse”.


First, “Refuse”. Avoid creating new digital files wherever possible; be it a text file, photo or video. Cloud services make multiple duplicates of each stored file. So, even if you have deleted photos from your device or social media channel, they may not be deleted from the backups. This means they will still contribute to the growth of the digital garbage mountains. It’s therefore essential to avoid creating new data in the first place.


Next, “Reduce”. Review your digital habits and reduce digital activity where possible. For example, consider whether every email you send or photo you take is necessary. Whenever possible, always choose a phone call over digital communication.


And thirdly, “Reuse”. This part concerns the electronics themselves. Manufacturers pressure consumers to buy newer and newer models of phones through a mix of both ethical and unethical techniques – for example, making older models slow down to encourage consumers to purchase new ones. This is not only unethical, but also has a huge negative impact on the environment. As we succumb to the pressures of innovation, we often replace devices that still work with newer versions, creating a global problem of e-waste. Discarded devices often end up in developing countries, where they are recycled in ways that cause both air and water pollution, with fatal effects both on people and the surrounding environment. The amount of e-waste is growing exponentially worldwide. In 2021, 57 million tons of electronic waste were generated. This is more than the weight of the entire Great Wall of China, which is said to be the heaviest man-made object on the planet.


The other side of the coin: e-waste


E-waste contains a large number of metals whose supply is likely to run out this century. For example, gallium (used in medical thermometers, LEDs, solar panels and telescopes), silver (used in mirrors, sunlight-darkening reactive lenses and antibacterial clothing), indium (used in transistors, microchips, sprinkler systems, and as a coating on ball bearings and solar panels), and tantalum (used in surgical implants, electrodes for neon lights, turbine blades, rocket nozzles and nose caps of supersonic aircraft, hearing aids and pacemakers). Interestingly, there is more gold in a ton of discarded mobile phones than in a ton of gold ore. This means that each additional year of usage has a tremendous positive environmental impact.


The positive impact of digital cleanups


Carrying out a digital cleanup has many benefits, as deleting digital waste clears storage space on devices, thus making them faster and saving valuable time. An organised digital workspace also has a positive psychological effect, as a tidy workspace results in increased focus. Decluttering may cause inspiration too, allowing forgotten ideas to resurface. Organizations and companies find benefits in team-wide digital cleanups – noting increased operative efficiency, reduced workspace clutter, reduced costs of server storage, as well as increased team morale, fewer security risks, etc. By tackling your digital footprint, you reduce the organisation’s environmental load and create a more sustainable workflow.


Digital waste has an impact on you, as well as on the environment. For example, the fewer forgotten backups and unused digital systems you possess, the less time and fewer resources are spent on surveillance and monitoring of logs. Consequently, there are fewer security risks and less strain on servers.


New scientific evidence shows that the frequent use of digital technology has significant negative effects on brain function and behavior, in addition to positive phenomena. For example, the use of technology is associated with an increased number of suicides among young people. Also, longer stints of time in the digital world are related to concentration and memory disorders, decreased emotional and social intelligence, and increased social anxiety.


So, all in all, this means that replacing watching videos online with going out with friends is not only good for your mental health and happiness, but is a positive environmental act that helps slow climate change.


So, let’s switch off from our devices – and enjoy real life!

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