The environmental cost of the internet and your data  

In recent years, the internet has become an integral part of our lives. It has transformed the way we communicate, work, and access information. However, the internet and its usage come with an environmental cost that we often overlook. Here, we explore how the use of the internet results in carbon dioxide emissions, digital landfills, and e-waste and provide some ways for users to lower their digital impact.

Data of all sorts is now ubiquitous in our daily lives. You’ve probably scrolled through social media already today, maybe read some emails from work colleagues and visited a news website, and sent friends a photo you snapped on your smartphone camera. But did you realise that all this data consumption has a surprisingly large environmental impact?

Our data use is huge

Take photos, for instance. With the development of smartphones with high-quality, built-in cameras over the last two decades, the number of photos we collectively take has exploded. Whereas you might’ve been careful taking a photo on a film camera in the late 1990s (considering you only had 30 or so shots and had to pay to develop them), now over 54,000 photos are taken every second around the world – over 1.8 trillion every year worldwide (3). And that’s just photos, not even accounting for the explosive growth of super-high definition videos. Uploaded to the internet, these images account for large amounts of data.

Immense power usage

The internet is made up of devices ranging from the smartphone in your hand and the computer in your office, to the servers in large data centres. Data centres, which house computer servers and storage devices, consume massive amounts of electricity. They require cooling systems to keep the servers from overheating, and the cooling systems require additional energy.

Unfortunately the majority of the electricity consumed isn’t sustainably generated, with much of the energy required for internet usage coming from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas. By some estimates the use of the internet produces up to 1 billion tons of polluting greenhouse gases, or for about 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions (1) — roughly equivalent to emissions from the entire aviation industry.

You can also think of it this way: each time an email is sent, there’s a carbon cost to that – 4 grams of CO2 for a text-based email and around 50g for emails with photo attachments(1). With the billions of emails sent daily – up to 333 billion, in fact(5) – it’s easy to see how the carbon cost mounts up.

Storing your data

Worse, storage of digital waste is also a problem. According to some research up to 90% of data is not reused or accessed again after it is stored online.(2) But the servers and data centres that are storing the countless bytes of data remain running, using vast quantities of electricity. Google Images has over 136 billion images available (3) with many of these automatically scraped from websites, and we’d hate to think how many haven’t been viewed since they were uploaded!

Digital Landfills and E-waste

In physical terms, the internet has another impact. E-waste includes outdated, obsolete, or broken electronic devices such as smartphones, laptops, and tablets, each of which contains hazardous materials such as lead, mercury, and cadmium that can harm the environment and human health if not disposed of properly.

Additionally, e-waste is the fastest-growing waste stream globally. It is estimated that about 50 million metric tons of e-waste is generated annually, and this number is expected to increase to 74 million metric tons by 2030 (4). When e-waste is not properly disposed of, it can end up in landfills or be incinerated, which releases toxic chemicals into the environment.

So what can you do?

Fortunately, there are ways for users to lower their digital impact and contribute to a more sustainable future. Here are some ways to do so:

  • Reduce digital consumption – Reduce the amount of time spent online, which reduces energy consumption and carbon emissions.
  • Have a digital clean up. Delete files on your computer, in cloud storage or on your phone that you don’t need anymore.
  • Get rid of duplicates. If you take burst photos or multiple shots to get the angle you want, remember to delete the duds!
  • Unsubscribe from emails you don’t want. If the emails aren’t sent, the energy – however small – isn’t used. On a big scale, this makes a big impact.
  • Reduce file sizes. Compress files to reduce their size, which results in less data storage and lower energy consumption. For videos, you could choose to shoot in a lower resolution to take up less space.
  • Use energy-efficient devices. Choose devices that are energy efficient and consume less power, and consider turning your phone off at night to stop it consuming power and data.
  • Dispose of e-waste properly. Recycle or dispose of e-waste properly to prevent it from ending up in landfills.

While the internet has brought about significant changes in our lives it’s also had an environmental cost, contributing to carbon dioxide emissions and the creation of digital landfills and e-waste. However, we all can take steps to reduce their digital impact and contribute to a more sustainable future. By adopting eco-friendly practices, we can help reduce the negative impact of our digital world on the environment.




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