Digital Waste: is there pollution on the Internet?

How many emails do you have in your inbox? And photos in the cloud? How many WhatsApps have you sent this week? We have completely internalised our online activity, so much so that no one thinks twice before sending a message or saving a photo. And why would they do that? Our presence on the internet has become an essential part of our daily lives, even essential in many activities, but did you know that all these everyday and apparently harmless actions leave a trail of digital waste that also pollutes?

According to data from the Data Never Sleeps report by DOMO, a cloud solutions company, in 2022, every minute of every day, 5.9 million Google searches were made, 66,000 photos were uploaded to Instagram, 347,200 tweets were posted, and 231.4 million emails were sent. These figures are even more striking when compared to 2013, the year of the first edition of its publication: Google searches have increased by 195%, photos uploaded to Instagram by 1,733%, tweets by 247% and emails, which in 2013 already amounted to 204 million per minute, by 13%.

 

What is digital waste?

Digital waste refers to all data that is stored online unnecessarily. Old photos, unnecessary messages, advertising emails and internet downloads, among other things. All this activity emits tonnes of CO2 that pollute the planet.

As Ana Millán, director of Fundación Accenture, explained to RTVE, 100 emails pollut e as much as 125 light bulbs. Other experts offer similar data: The Shift Project, a French think tank committed to decarbonisation, claims that half an hour watching a video on the internet generates 1.6 kg of CO2.

 

Pollution on the Internet

All this daily activity and the data we store are hosted on servers that have to be connected non-stop at all times to allow everything to run smoothly and allow us to access our data or send WhatsApps whenever we want. In addition to this enormous energy expenditure, powerful cooling systems are needed to keep them from overheating.

According to data from Lancaster University, where a team of experts is researching the environmental impact of the internet, these data centres currently account for between 1.8% and 2.8% of the world's electricity consumption. But if the impact of the entire industry, including factories and supply chains, extraction or transport, is taken into account, this rises to 20%.

This means that our digital activity pollutes more than some countries like Switzerland or Norway. Moreover, based on growth trends in recent years, it is estimated that by 2025 server consumption could account for as much as 8% of the world's total electricity expenditure, and, if the total for the whole industry is added up, CO2 emissions would be as high as those of the world's fourth most polluting country, Russia, behind only China, the United States and India.

 

How you can reduce your digital waste

Reducing digital waste is everyone's responsibility. Fortunately, there are many really simple steps that are easy to integrate into our digital habits and that we can take in our daily lives to reduce our digital footprint:

  • Empty the recycle bin and the deleted emails folder.
  • Delete all emails that are not relevant and limit sending unnecessary messages.
  • Connect to a Wi-Fi network instead of using mobile data. Also, opt for the 5G or 5G+ network; the more developed the technology, the less impact it has.
  • Disable Bluetooth and Wi-Fi when not in use.
  • Think before you send an email or message; do you really need to send it?
  • Do not leave apps open unnecessarily.
  • Opt for dark mode on your mobile phone and computer and try to keep screen brightness to a minimum.
  • Be more selective with the photos you store: avoid saving bursts of photos and repeated photos in the cloud.
  • Always turn off the computer when you finish using it, unplug the charger, and, in general, take care of your devices to extend their useful life as much as possible.
  • Instead of discarding a device because it has run out of storage space, do the exercise of looking at everything that can be deleted (apps, files, etc.) to free up memory.
  • Go for one of the many apps or programmes that can help by detecting and deleting duplicates.

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