We learned from elementary school that pollution is damaging the natural environment and putting it in danger, and we have seen its representation in various forms: soil pollution, water pollution, and air pollution …, in the latest years, another type of pollution appeared: the digital pollution and it cannot be underestimated. Digital pollution is linked to any negative digital impact on nature, from the manufacturing of all that is digital, passing through the using stages until its end of life.
The first cause or the first phase is the manufacturing of electronic devices (smartphones, computers, connected objects, chips), which includes the extraction of raw materials, the production of electronic components and the assembly of equipment. The second cause of digital pollution stems from the phase of use or consumption where actions like watching a movie, internet surfing, sending an e-mail and, chatting on social media, using a connected object…, require a digital activity that needs a lot of energy and emits greenhouse gases the first responsible for climate change: for example, according to ADEME ‘each French employee receives an average of 58 professional emails per day and sends 33. Sending 33 daily emails with 1 MB attachments to two recipients, according to the agency, it generates annual emissions equivalent to 180 kg of CO2, or as much as 1,000 km traveled by car’, and according to Dr. Rado Danilak ‘U.S. data centers use more than 90 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, requiring roughly 34 giant (500-megawatt) coal-powered plants. Global data centers used roughly 416 terawatts (4.16 x 10 watts) (or about 3% of the total electricity) last year, nearly 40% more than the entire United Kingdom. And this consumption will double every four years’, December 2017.
The last cause is the recycling of electronic equipment, it’s the management of devices at the end of their life cycle it could reduce the exploitation and production of rare metals, and could also be one of the solutions for the optimization and security of supplies, on the other hand, there is Digital waste (55 million tones of “e-waste” was produced in 2018, the vast majority not recycled and sent to landfills to be incinerated or buried).
Digital pollution is an invisible pollution that grows very quickly, we must realize that and well assess the situation to avoid the possible risks that could happen, in 2019, there were 34 billion digital devices in the world. And 4.1 billion people to share them, so an individual has an average of 8 digital devices, that caused real dangerous problems as the stats say 10% The share of electricity consumed by data centers in France, 2020 is the first year when digital pollution will pollute more than civil aviation, 4% of global CO2 emissions are from digital pollution and in five years, it will be 6%, for one email sends with a 1-megabyte attachment we have 19g CO2 emission and 60% of these emails never opened, we are at the beginning of the digital pollution phenomenon, and it is more complicated and harmful compared with the other pollutions, it will grow exponentially in the next few years.
As users of digital devices, there are simple good practices we can to minimize CO2 emissions. In the first place we try to buy with more responsibly and try to choose the digital equipment that has the longest lifetime. To manufacture a Smartphone we need about 60 different metals, but only around 20 of these metals are recyclable, So it is better to choose products that have environmental stickers like (European eco-label, EPEAT, Nordic eco-label, Blue Angel, TCO) there are more economical devices. Limit the energy consumption of our devices by turning off mobile data, Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth when they are not useful and as possible as we can. When connecting to the internet with a computer, it is better to use an Ethernet cable instead of a WIFI. Even the internet browsers there are ones with less energy-consuming such Ecosia and Brave. Tapping the website address we want to visit instead of going through the search engine at least for those sites we regularly visit is more economical, or creating a bookmarks toolbar on your browser. Limiting the number of tabs and windows unused opened, which consume resources and energy continuously. Regarding the use of e-mail, with easy gestures for everyone we can reduce their impact, for example: optimize the size of email attachments or replace it by links (example instead of using an Excel file use a link to Google sheets) and remove the images in the signature. Limit the number of recipients and clean up the mailing list and avoid ‘reply for all’ functionality. Unsubscribe from unsolicited newsletters and delete emails regularly. We must know that these simple acts can reduce greenhouse gas emission. However, these good acts or practices are only a solution for the short-term, because user demands for digital products or services are always increasing to make their life easier and simpler.
Digital devices and services are very important in our lives, and we can use it to respond to various environmental challenges, especially in terms of the energy transition, but it still a factor in the increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Through the energy consumption in the digital sector and greenhouse gas emissions, and it will increase very rapidly in the next few years. Despite recent efforts to raise awareness of digital pollution and the appearance of GreenTech, EnviroTech or CleanTech solutions. So, this requires from all concerned companies, universities, specialized associations, engineers… must cooperate to make real and tangible progress and save the digital industry from harming our natural environment. And as users we cannot completely stop using digital services and devices, but we can find and apply good practices to limit the impact of our digital footprint on the planet.