The Truth About Digital Garbage and Its Harm
There is one type of waste that seems inconspicuous, but at the same time significantly affects the environment. We are talking about so-called “digital waste,” which includes old files, duplicate photos, and unused applications — valuable resources are spent on their storage.
Let’s figure out what is included in this invisible digital garbage, as well as how and why it should be disposed of.
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What is “digital garbage” and what do data centers have to do with it?
When people mention “electronic waste” they usually mean waste from electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE), which includes discarded electronic devices — from batteries to smartphones to laptops — that may be dangerous due to the substances and components contained in them. For example, lead or mercury.
“Digital waste” (invisible waste) is understood as something that may not be directly recyclable or disposed of at a specialized incinerator but affects the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
According to some studies, the use of digital technologies already has a stronger impact on global warming than the global aviation industry. Moreover, the dependence is quite obvious: the most significant emissions come from the states with the largest number of internet users: China, India, and the USA.
According to Statista, about 4.14 billion people in the world used virtual mail in 2022. Every day we send and receive 319.6 billion emails. Each track in a streaming service, a video on YouTube or Netflix, or a photo in the cloud increases global electricity consumption, and hence the amount of CO2 emissions.
How exactly? Data centers (or data processing centers) are engaged in storing and processing such information on remote servers, but with almost instant access at the user’s request. They constantly need electricity, and on a truly industrial scale. As a result, hundreds of millions of tons of greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere.
International corporations understand this and try to minimize the damage at least: Google, Facebook, Amazon, and others are trying to reduce the power consumption of data centers. For example, by placing some of them in Scandinavia and other locations with an initially cold climate — this helps to cool the equipment, which in turn takes less resources.
Among the more innovative solutions is setting up AI models in such a way that cooling systems are automatically adjusted depending on weather conditions. Amazon has even developed a special web tool that calculates the carbon footprint from the use of the company’s cloud resources.
But at the same time, it is difficult to call such solutions final. The transition to more energy-efficient data centers cannot completely offset the ever-growing need for the construction and commissioning of new large data centers — their growth is estimated at 10-30% annually.
The Wall Street Journal writes that in monetary terms, the growth in the AI infrastructure market — including data centers — is even more noticeable: over the next six years it is expected to grow by 44%, reaching $422.5 billion.
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Deleting 50 emails equals turning off 2.7 billion light bulbs
Below are some more examples of how digital garbage affects the world around us. The average internet user receives about 2,850 “unwanted emails” (in fact, spam) per year. This, according to experts, is equal to carbon dioxide emissions from a car that has traveled 114 kilometers.
It is important to note: that this data was taken four years ago, in 2019. The situation may have worsened over the past time, especially during the first waves of COVID-19, when many professionals around the world started working from home.
Another report claims that if the average Frenchman deletes 50 emails, it will be the equivalent of turning off as many as 2.7 billion low-power bulbs for an hour. The British are advised not to respond to every letter with the template phrase “thank you.”
After all, if the calculations are correct, this way it will be possible to stop emissions of about 16.4 tons of CO2 per year. How significant is this? The same amount can be produced by aircraft that have made more than 81,000 flights from the UK to Madrid.
Performing 50 search queries per day produces about 26 kilograms of CO2 per year. The same amount is spent when driving a conventional gasoline car at a distance of 183 kilometers. Another thing: when watching YouTube videos, 6 grams of CO2 are produced per hour — so 6 billion grams of CO2 are generated daily in the world. How did they manage to calculate it? There are several specialized sites for this — for example, this one.
What should we do?
At first, it may seem that, given the constant increase in demand for the use of resources, especially in terms of AI models and data centers that ensure their operation, it is unlikely that an ordinary user will be able to correct or at least ease the situation at the household level. But this, according to the examples above, is not quite true — it is quite realistic to try to reduce your own carbon footprint.
Below are a few simple recommendations that will not take much time:
- Delete those “lying around” (let’s be honest — unnecessary) files from smartphones, laptops, game consoles and other equipment. Such files include not only photos, but also documents, both offline and in cloud storage. With a high probability, at least half of them you are unlikely to use regularly. Even banal online notes “eat up” the amount of memory allocated to users in the “cloud.” How will this help nature? 5 GB of information that ceases to be stored and/or processed on the network is equivalent to reducing the carbon footprint by one kilogram.
- Regarding the emails we talked about above, start small — try to delete (and not just throw it into the “Recycle Bin”) at least those emails that are in spam. And then you can delete those promotional mailings, which users are often bombarded with by online stores in which you are offered one-time deals, many of which expired years ago. It does not hurt to carry out such operations with all your email inboxes. Let’s venture to assume that many readers have accounts on at least several services.
- Another recommendation is especially suitable for those who like to take not one or two, but a dozen photos of the same place, event, or person. When you find the most beautiful photo, do not be lazy to say goodbye to its lesser duplicates. Today it is not necessary to do this manually. Modern smartphones (iPhone for sure) can search for “repeaters” in the gallery in automatic mode. Cloud services, ranging from Google Photos to iCloud and ending with Microsoft’s OneDrive, can do the same — international IT corporations are focused on reducing the energy consumption of data centers and, as a result, the removal of greenhouse gases.
Finally, it is possible to limit the quality of the video viewed in online services, although taking into account the spread of 4K and even 8K TVs, it may be difficult to do this. Nevertheless, it is calculated that if subscribers of streaming platforms reduced the quality from HD to Standard, CO2 emissions would fall by millions of tons per year.
Today’s internet and our digital tools offer us tons of opportunities to communicate, work, search for useful information, and much more.
However, do not forget about the negative impact on the environment. Use the internet wisely!