In the digital world, like the environment, there is a huge amount of trash. Unnecessary emails, files, apps, duplicates of photos and videos are all digital waste. This digital trash creates digital pollution that continues to consume energy even when we have forgotten it. Digital trash sits in the back-ups on servers that provide us with cloud service and continue consuming electricity. Each year the internet and its supporting systems produce 900 million tonnes of CO2, which is more than the annual output of the whole Germany. Some studies estimate that in a decade the internet network will consume 20 per cent of the world’s total energy. To combat this, Digital Cleanup Day was launched on March 20th and despite its name will run for a month until late April.
This is the second running of the event that is run by Estonia-based Let’s Do It World, an organisation who have traditionally focussed on physical waste. “We started it because of COVID-19,” Anneli Ohvril, executive director. Let’s Do It World, says. “We had organised a global clean up together with Earth Day last April, but of course COVID-19 came along, and many countries were locked down. Therefore, we started looking for something which we could still do from our homes, which is where we discovered the topic of digital waste and digital pollution.
“We understood that this is as important as the physical waste in nature, so we organised the first Digital Cleanup Day on 22nd of April. Despite quite short notice, it really went like a rocket around the world. We got feedback from 80 countries who took part, including India, which had 80,000 people participate. This created reactions and discussions in all sorts of different networks and many companies started to write to us, asking more questions and how could they contribute?”
Changing habits not chasing figures
The hardest part of the campaign is to quantify how much digital services can affect the environment, although the organisers do produce some thought-provoking facts and figures (see – Did You Know). “It is hard to measure the real impact on the environment and there is not much scientific research about the impact and how much energy we consume, or how much CO2 we produce, it is all debatable,” Ohvril explains. “Therefore, we are not focusing too much on this concrete number, but we are raising awareness about the digital hygiene and how our acting in the digital world has an impact.
“Of course, we are not calling people to stay away from the internet or go offline, but we use the internet and network wastefully and that has a big impact. There are a lot of similarities with the physical world with single use plastic. We do not think that plastic is bad, it has high value in medicine for example. However, single use plastic as in coffee cups or plastic bags, which we do not need, can be replaced easily with reusable alternatives.
“It is the same thing on the internet, we are producing a lot of single use files or single use data which we do not use anymore. I read recently that 90 per cent of data which is in the digital world is waste, which exactly reflects our thoughts and beliefs. We have created a huge digital landfill that is using a lot of energy to store all this digital waste. To solve this problem there are two entry points, how to keep the servers carbon neutral and raising awareness of this huge amount of waste in the network.”
Research has shown that if all the people in Britain stopped sending simple ‘thank you’ emails that would be equal to 81,000 individual flights from London to Madrid. “I think this comparison really raises awareness, as not many people understand things in terms of megabytes or gigabytes,” Ohvril adds. “This really puts it in a perspective that everyone can understand.”
As for what you would find in this digital landfill Ohvril reports that it is a big mix of everything. She believes that the amount of storage offered with devices encourages people to keep things they may not need. If the storage space is cheap and big, then people just fill it and then get some more.
Building on early success
This first event early this year was a pilot with no-one sure about what sort of impact it would have, but this time around great things are expected. “In France they have a huge campaign with a lot of companies taking part,” Ohvril continues. “In Estonia, Telia is the biggest telecommunication company, and the Digital Cleanup Day idea came from them. To begin with, we organised two digital clean ups in Estonia, then we agreed to go global, and COVID-19 gave us a perfect opportunity to do this. Telia has completed three digital clean up days together with their clients.
“We have gathered lots of different facts to visualise the problem and to make it understandable, but it is hard to say how much we can save. We believe that in nine years, the internet and its supporting system will consume 20 per cent of all global energy consumption and that is a scary percentage. It is not only about deleting the waste in our networks, but more rethinking our habits in how we use the internet. We also believe that in the same way we use the internet and our electronical devices, it also applies to the physical world, it is very much connected.”
The value of a clean up
Companies and organisations can make changes in everyday workflow that help reduce the ecological footprint of digital systems significantly. This requires a little time and willingness to make strategic decisions and implement simple changes. “When you think of your workflow, you must evaluate what works and what does not and how you can make the system work better for everyone,” Ohvril explains. “By tackling your digital footprint issue, you reduce your organisations’ environmental load and create a sustainable workflow. Too many systems or half-used solutions decrease efficiency. Organised and clear virtual offices help increase worker satisfaction.
“Organising and taking part in Digital Clean Up Day increases team morale and unity. It is a team building event. Free, fun and has both a good social and environmental impact. It is also 100 per cent safe in terms of COVID-19 restrictions.”
Ohvril recommends three steps that an organisation can take – know what trash is and what is not, map the digital waste and then organise a clean up. “Digital waste could be anything from pointless copies, to forgotten back-ups to customer records kept for years just in case,” she concludes. “But your digital footprint also increases by sending emails with or without files back and forth, using virtual workspaces irregularly, backing up large files on servers in real time, holding long meetings with videos streaming etc. A great way to start figuring this is out is to make an overview of what is business critical, what kind of records are required to be kept by the law, and by evaluating the efficiency of your digital procedures.”
Once you understand what you waste the next step is mapping it. This can be done simply by checking back-ups, emails, expired records, and documents, what is kept on servers, and where large files are kept. Then it is on to the clean up itself.
DID YOU KNOW?
- If 70 million streaming subscribers were to lower the video quality of their streaming services from HD to standard, there would be a monthly reduction of 3.5 million tonnes of CO2—the equivalent of eliminating six per cent of the total monthly coal consumption in the US.
- An employee who participates in 15 hours of online meetings with their camera turned on creates 9.4 kg CO2 a month. By turning off the video these would save the same amount of emissions that are created by charging a smartphone each night for over 3 years (1151 days).
- It takes more energy to mine for Bitcoins than the whole of New Zealand consumes in a year. It is important to remember that mining Bitcoin produces nothing but a few bytes of encrypted data. It consumes tremendous amounts of energy with computing without creating a product or a service of use.
- With the energy you use for video streaming (on average 2hrs per day), you could commute up to 3000 km or 2000 miles with an electric scooter for a year. That is a transport budget of eight km or five miles per day.
- Google uses 15,616 MWh of energy each day, this is more than Hoover Dam produces and it would power a whole country with one million inhabitants for a day.
- Our limitless consumption of data today needs three times more energy than all the solar panels in the world can produce. Our internet craze works mostly on fossil fuels, so clicking, scrolling, and streaming is responsible for more than 870 million tonnes of CO2, adding more force to the deadly global warming trend.
- Each day 281 billion emails whoosh around our planet. Refreshing, reading, and replying to our work emails takes more than three hours a day, five if you include personal email accounts. It can take more than 23 per cent of our workday, more than 20 weeks a year. Organising your emails, sending less of them, and using alternative ways of communication, like co-working spaces, would free that time, but also limit the ineffective practice of organising work through emails.