The Hidden Face of Digital

Submitted by: Phil Riebel 08/07/2017

Every day we send email, navigate the web and store our videos, photos or music in the Cloud. We often have the impression that the whole process is trivial and nearly free of environmental impacts, but this is not at all the case. 

This blog first appeared in PIWorld on July 27, 2017

Every day we send email, navigate the web and store our videos, photos or music in the Cloud. We often have the impression that the whole process is trivial and nearly free, but this is not at all the case.  So says L’Agence de l’Environnement et de la Maîtrise de l’Énergie (ADEME), an agency of the government of France which, promotes an environmental approach to the workplace and to daily living. In a recent Guide, La Face Cachée de Numérique, (The Hidden Face of Digital),  they describe the widespread environmental impacts of the growing number of digital devices (increasing energy consumption, use of primary minerals, pollution and waste production) and how to reduce them.

In the Guide, it is estimated that there are 2 billion smartphones, 1 billion computers, 5 to7 billion other connected devices and 45 billion servers worldwide and that 8.4 billion connected devices would be sold in the world in 2017, 31% more than in 2016. The forecast for 2020 is 50 billion connected devices. In one hour, there are 8 to 10 billion emails sent (not including spam) and 180 million Google searches and the average distance a piece of data travels is 15,000 km.

The manufacture of a computer requires 240 kg of fossil fuels, 22 kg of chemicals, 1.5 t of water and numerous precious (gold and platinum) or rare earth (tantalum, lanthanum, neodymium, yttrium) minerals as well as those which are dangerous for the environment (lead, bromine, arsenic, chlorine, mercury and cadmium). A desk top computer will consume between 120 and 250 kWh/year and a cell phone 2 to 7 kWh/year.

The Guide has a great deal of practical advice on how to reduce the environmental impact of your electronic habits, starting with carefully choosing what you buy. This includes looking for equipment that carries one of the environmental logos like Energy Star and buying a device that suits your needs and does not contain extra functions that you will never use.  Keeping your device longer and having it repaired rather than replacing it as soon as it breaks down is also better for the environment. They also suggest reducing your energy consumption by turning your computer off when you are done or putting it in sleep mode for short breaks.

Almost all parts of an electronic device can be recycled and reused so make sure you dispose of them in an appropriate manner. Don’t keep your old and unused smartphones or laptops stashed in your closet as they contain a wealth of raw materials. According to the Guide, there is 50 times more gold in a tonne of electronic cards than in a tonne of mineral! And some of these materials are toxic and need to be carefully treated.

When you send an email, it takes a complicated and lengthy pathway that likely involves more than one data center along the way. Multiplying the number of recipients of an email by ten increases its environmental impact by four. Reducing the number of recipients, not replying to ‘all’ recipients unless necessary, optimizing the size of attachments using compressed files and utilizing USB keys for transferring very large files are just some of the suggestions the Guide makes to limit the energy used by your email.

And don’t forget that while the Cloud sounds like it is a virtual space with unlimited storage capacity, it is actually a collection of networks, servers and storage units made up of real hardware and cables which consume a great deal of energy, 24 hours a day. Getting rid of movies, images, music and anything else that is in storage in the Cloud but no longer needed is recommended. Ditto for your personal blogs. Cleaning up emails and unused files on your local device will make it run more efficiently and use less energy.  Consulting data in a file that is stored externally requires a return trip between your computer and a server and sending data over the internet consumes twice the energy as storing it locally for a year. Take home message: store as much of your information on your device as possible.

Watching videos on line is highlighted as they represent 60% of internet traffic! When you watch a film, for example, it is better to download it rather than stream it live.

Don’t treat your digital devices as though they have no environmental impact because they do! Learning how to minimize the impact is a necessary part of our digital future.