The Hidden Environmental Costs Of Digital


From the escalating problem of e-waste to the increasing carbon footprint of data centres, we look at the impact digital transformation is having on the planet.

A question: How many old, unused phones and devices have you got in your home? According to a survey by the Royal Society of Chemistry, 45% of homes have between two and five electronic devices lying unused in drawers and boxes, with most people having no plans to recycle.

What many people don’t realise is that, while these gadgets may not have much monetary value for the owner, they have huge value for the environment as they contain a large number of precious metals that have to be mined to create new devices, mining that has a huge impact on the environment.

“These devices offer many important resources that can be used in the production of new electronic devices or other equipment, such as wind turbines, electric car batteries or solar panels,” said Magdalena Charytanowicz of the International Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Forum. “These are all crucial for the green, digital transition to low-carbon societies.”

Dark Data

The vast amount of e-waste is just one aspect of the environmental challenges associated with digital media. Another key issue is the exponential increase in ‘dark data’, the images, files and documents stored in data centres around the world, never to be seen or used again.

With readily available data storage either free or very low cost, many businesses and individuals  will simply keep everything. Whether it’s presentations never to be used again, identical images and videos automatically stored in iCloud, or unwanted data generated from industrial sensors, there’s a lot of redundant files out there. According to the State of Dark Data report by TRUE Global Research, a typical organisation’s data is 55% dark, with a third of organisations holding more than 75% dark data.

The problem comes with the amount of energy required to store all this information. According to a report by The Shift Project, the carbon footprint of our gadgets, the internet and the systems supporting them account for almost 4% of global greenhouse emissions, a similar amount produced by the airline industry, with these emissions predicted to double by the year 2025.

“What governments have failed to look at so far is the carbon footprint of digitalisation,” says Tom Jackson, Professor of Information and Knowledge Management at Loughborough University. “It’s like the iceberg analogy: there are big polluters now that are at the top of the iceberg, but hidden beneath the surface are some big issues we are just not seeing yet.”

And there’s certainly no let up in the amount of data generated. In 2022, the world is expected to generate 97 zettabytes (97 trillion gigabytes) of data. By 2025, it could almost double to 181 zettabytes. It’s difficult to imagine such numbers, so consider the size of building used to hold such large amounts of data. Located in Langfang China, Range International Information Group is the world’s largest data centre, spread across 6.3 million square feet, which is equivalent to 110 football fields.

The New Plastic

Whether you are responsible for an entire company’s digital footprint or just your own, there are a number of things you can do. As an organisation, the first step is understanding how much data the company processes and stores. Then think about how your company uses knowledge and consider how you can save key information without employees constantly having to look it up.

On a personal level, spend some time going through any images and videos stored on iCloud or Google Images, and delete any you don’t want. And change the setting on your phone to automatically save every image you take or receive to the Cloud. Once you have done all that, gather every old phone and device in the house and take it to your local recycling centre, making sure you back up any stored information, images or videos before restoring to factory settings.

“We need to rethink the amount of data we are generating as a society,” says Tom Jackson. “We need to think about it the same way we have been thinking about plastic; do we really need to have all these apps and devices that are generating and storing all this data?”



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