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Digital Footprints: An Unseen Cloud of Waste

Digital Footprints: An Unseen Cloud of Waste

Most of us tend to think of the internet as a vast void: a blackhole capable of storing massive amounts of data that we can access at the click of a button. It’s terribly convenient – infinitely easier than driving to a post office, buying a stamp, and posting a letter before waiting weeks for a reply.

Add to that, there’s also the thought that sending an email is much more eco-friendly than sending a letter. While this is typically true argues the Cornell University, people tend to send more emails than they would letters – not to mention the huge amounts of spam we all tend to receive in our inbox.

So how does using the internet add to carbon emissions anyway?

First of all, there’s all the tech you need to access the internet itself like computers, tablets, mobile phones, modems etc. that contribute to large amounts of e-waste (link to e-waste blog here) and the electricity required to run them.  Apart from these are the vast systems used to support the internet and store all the data we send, receive, and access. These server farms require large amounts energy to power and cool the immense computer systems used to store data. It’s estimated that these data centres consume about 3 percent of the global electric supply and their greenhouse gas emissions are equivalent to that of the airline industry. That’s crazy, right?

Our usage of the internet is just going up with the Internet of Things quickly becoming a way of life. This means the number of server farms around the world is also going up. Companies that host them are increasingly under pressure to find more eco-friendly ways of powering these centres and reducing their carbon footprints. And they are trying by shifting to renewable energy sources, planting trees and buying carbon offsets.

Great! But what can you and I do about this?

Now we come to the crux of this blog. There are plenty of things we can do as individuals to reduce the impact of our internet use on the environment. Here are a few ways you can reduce your ‘digital waste’:

  1. Use your devices for as long as possible:

Not upgrading your electronics every time there’s a new model can go a long way towards reducing the waste from discarded hardware. The University of Edinburgh found that you can avoid 190 kgCO2e of carbon emissions by simply extending the life of a single computer and monitor from four years to 6. So be gentle with your electronics, the environment will be grateful in return.

  1. Be mindful of the emails you send (and receive):

Studies have found that a typical businessperson creates 135kg (298lbs) CO2e a year which is roughly equivalent to driving 200 miles (322 km approx.) in a regular car. While sending emails for work is unavoidable, there are a few best practices to follow:

  • Check your emails thoroughly before sending so you don’t have to send a follow up email.
  • Unsubscribe from newsletters you no longer read.
  • Include links to documents instead of attaching documents.
  • Avoid media heavy signatures.

If this seems extreme, OVO Energy sums it up perfectly “Each UK adult sending one less ‘thank you’ email a day, would save over 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year - the same as 81,1522 flights to Madrid or taking 3,3343 diesel cars off the road”

  1. Use cloud storage wisely:

We’re used to syncing our phones so that every picture we take is backed up as are our emails. The word cloud is misleading.  All the data we store online is actually stored on server farms somewhere which require immense amounts of power. Instead. Use local storage wherever possible – like on hard drives or your computer and delete unnecessary documents and pictures. It can be a pain to do – but trust me, once you’re done, you’ll feel that same sense of calm you get after a good de-clutter.

There you have it – a few simple ways to help you get rid of the waste you don’t see.

Until next time!

Your digital waste-warrior and eco-storyteller,


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