As the world moves toward more sustainable initiatives, digital pollution management is getting more attention from both corporates and individuals. So, how can we reduce our digital footprint?
What is digital pollution?
Rapid advances in technology have changed daily life. Smartphones are in almost every pocket, email keeps us in constant contact, and the effect of the past year has led to a huge increase in home working. For many, the freedom that technology offers is a blessing. But what are the consequences?
Digital pollution is the cost to the environment, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, that comes from creating, constructing, and using technology. All day everyday millions of servers power technology and data usage worldwide. The effects of this can often be forgotten in favor of the better publicized causes of pollution, such as the dependence on fossil fuels and plastics.
However, every year, the scale of technology usage grows. According to AccuWeather, digital pollution could account for 3.5 percent of all emissions globally in the next decade: more than the aviation industry. This is forecasted to rise to 14 percent by 2040.
What are the causes?
The servers that power the world’s connectivity could account for around 20 percent of all electricity usage by 2025, says The Guardian. This is down to several facets of modern life:
- Billions of emails are sent each day, whether they be newsletters, work, friends and families keeping in touch, or spam. Email has helped lower our reliance on paper communications, but each one adds to digital waste generated by data transmission.
- Video streaming accounts for a large part of our data usage, and with high resolution video now common, it is using an increasing number of resources.
- Everyday internet browsing adds up to a significant contribution to digital pollution, with every page loaded needing electricity to power its data transfer.
There is also the cost of manufacturing the devices that carry out these tasks. Every year new models of smartphones, personal computers and smart televisions are released. Not only does the production of these contribute to digital pollution, but millions of old devices add to the growing problem of e waste.
What is e-waste?
Electronic waste is the discarding of devices that have either been replaced by newer ones, or that no longer function correctly. In many cases, these devices are not recycled properly and are sent to landfill, which can lead to toxic chemicals from their components being released into the environment. This poses a threat to water, soils, and wildlife.
As newer and more sophisticated technologies come into everyday usage, devices are becoming obsolete more quickly. Likewise, many users choose to upgrade often, often before old devices require replacing. Increasingly, e waste is made up of these devices that are still useable, with mobile device upgrades a major contributor.
So, what can we do?
With the amount of data transferred around the world only predicted to increase, it’s clear that improvements must be made to lower the environmental impact. Organizations have begun to put pressure on technology companies to increase their use of renewable energy for data centers. If the world is only going to become more dependent on technology and digital communications, then powering those tools with renewable energy would make a significant impact on the industry’s digital waste footprint.
However, while these large-scale industry changes are important, AccuWeather also suggests several ways that individuals can reduce their digital footprint:
- If you no longer want to receive certain newsletters or email communications, then unsubscribing from those emails can help decrease future power usage.
- Reduce your mobile device battery usage by uninstalling apps that you no longer use.
- Minimize data transfer while using the internet by only keeping browser tabs open that you are using, and closing others.
- After your phone or device is fully charged, unplug it.
- You could choose a device with a smaller screen when buying a new one; this will use less energy than a bigger screen.
Another way to contribute to digital sustainability is to ensure that unwanted devices are not needlessly thrown away, and to use proper methods of e-waste recycling for old devices when upgrading.
Digital pollution will only receive more attention in the near future, with industry growth, advancing technology and an increasingly online world all adding to the issue.
However, there are many ways in which organizations and individuals together can contribute to improving our digital footprint. Renewable energy and more responsible usage can come together to lessen the environmental impact of technology, and we each have our part to play.