Reducing Waste in Our Digital Lives

1st Sep 2019

Do you remember back in the day when we would add a note in our e-mail signatures saying something like “Please consider the environment. Do not print this e-mail unless necessary”?

Many of us were in a new phase of working where paper was the bad guy and digital was the environmentally friendly alternative. It was easy to think of e-mails as an intangible thing, magically leaving your mailbox and arriving in your recipients’ a few seconds later without so much of a tiny tiptoe, never mind a great big stomping dirty carbon footprint.

Illustration showing various icons to represent our online activities, such as social media, online shopping, video streaming etc.

Fast forward 10 to 15 years later and the world is very different. E-mails are now one tiny aspect of our extensive online professional and personal lives. I would dare to guess that most people reading this have Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram accounts. We stream movies and tv series, listen to music, podcasts, radio and we play games. We buy books, holidays, gifts and other fun things. It’s such a joy! We conduct much of our work online whether through our own websites or third-party platforms; writing articles, creating promotional videos, making sales, communicating, learning, buying from suppliers, managing our admin. It makes life so much more convenient and is a vital marketing tool. Entrepreneurs may have separate business accounts from their private ones for various digital services and our online activities are split into the data we consume and the data we create.

Taking an inventory of our digital activities

If you take a moment to make a mental list of all of your day-to-day online tasks and pastimes, you’ll probably be surprised by how many there are and how they are continually growing. These activities are such an impalpable, integral part of our lives, seemingly residing in our devices and office computers that barely take up any of our own space or energy. But that isn’t the full picture…

The thing is, e-mails are not an intangible thing nor are any of the other multitude of online activities I’ve listed (and not listed) above. Every click, every published word, picture, video, sound and transaction uses energy and resources and creates waste. The abstract internet isn’t abstract at all. The digital equates to the physical and in very significant ways and amounts. It translates to electricity and gas consumed, materials sourced, hardware manufactured and transported, structures built and land taken. All of the data we consume and create is stored in millions, yes millions of data centres around the world which house, process and serve up every single thing we say and do online. These data centres accommodate the web servers which are connected to the internet 24/7, they need to be kept secure, maintained, cooled and of course powered constantly. Their physical size varies between 5,000 and 500,000 square feet. The whole thing is absolutely gargantuan and it is growing at an incredible rate.

Here are some figures to put this into perspective:

  • A smartphone streaming a one hour video per week uses more power annually than a refrigerator. ₁
  • In 2012 there were 500,000 data centres globally. Now there are 8 million. ₂
  • In 2015 the world’s datacentres used 416.2 Terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity which was much more than the whole of the UK’s 300 TWh consumption in the same year. This energy use is doubling every 4 years.₃
  • Currently the internet uses around 3% of the world’s global electricity supply. If it continues to grow at its current rate this could reach more than 10% by 2030.₄ In fact, the data centre expert Professor Bitterlin states that if the same growth continues, the energy supply in Japan will be completely consumed by data centres by 2030.₅
  • Last year new data created was 33 Zettabytes (ZB). In 2025 it is predicted to be 175 ZB. One Zettabyte = one trillion Gigabytes.₆
  • In 2018 online video viewing created the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions as that produced by the whole of Spain. ₇

There are many more articles and studies online if you would like to delve deeper into this topic (I have added a list of resources at the end of this article). However, it doesn’t take long too see that our ever-increasing use and creation of online data is causing a problem that isn’t going to go away.

Let's extend our sustainable choices to our digital lives

Many of us are already on the path of living a more sustainable lifestyle and thankfully this is becoming more mainstream too. We switch off our electrical goods when not in use, look for low energy appliances and light bulbs, we’re cutting down on single use plastic and worry about the damage of palm oil production, fast fashion and the meat industry. Slowly a wave of less consumption and lower waste is happening in many areas of our lives except in the world of online data, where exactly the opposite is taking place.

We need to apply the same level of responsibility in our digital lives as we do our physical ones. We wouldn’t dream of polluting the air by driving to each of our friend’s houses to tell them about the local veg we’d eaten for dinner or waste paper and ink printing off unnecessarily large photos of our shop products. But we do squander the resources we have to communicate online.

How can we lower our digital (which is actually physical) waste?

I don’t need to write a list of things that you can do instead of binge-watching your favourite box-set or scrolling through your Instagram feed. We all know that there’s life out there away from the Internet, let’s just go and live it (I’m saying this to myself too by the way).

I can, however, provide some useful ways to work more efficiently online, especially with the content and data you publish on your own website and elsewhere:

Please consider the environment. Do not post this unless you really need to.
Where we conduct so much of our business marketing and valuable (dare I say essential) networking online it is tempting to feel like we continuously need to post something (anything) on our social media business accounts so that we aren’t forgotten. Don’t give in to that temptation and work on curating useful, informative posts less often instead. The quality over quantity principle really applies here.

To video or not to video
Video is the biggest offender when it comes to online resource use as it accounts for 80% of the world’s data traffic. So, although video is an amazing medium for communicating with your audience, use it wisely and only when you will get the best results from it rather than just as your default choice. The Shift Project provides a guide on how to reduce the digital size of your videos, so if you do choose to publish a video, make sure it is as small (in file size) as it can be. *

Sort out those images
You know those times when you visit a website and the page appears with the images missing initially, then the pictures jerkily load into the page? This is when the images used are way too big. It may appear the correct size on the page but only its dimensions have been reduced and the original file size is much larger. This is a common wasteful practice and these huge photos can do your website more harm than good. Re-size your digital images before you add them to your website. Even with large, high res screens it is unlikely that you will ever need to use a photo that is 5000 pixels wide, straight from your digital camera.

Clear out your WordPress Plugins
If you’re a WordPress user, it is likely that you have installed a number of plugins to perform specific tasks on your website (e.g. SEO tools, e-commerce, events calendar etc). These plugins are a fantastic thing for non-web developers because they take a lot of work out of adding a new feature. However, these plugins can be heavy on resources because they perform several functions (you may not be utilising all of them) and when your website is visited, every plugin is loaded, even the ones that are not currently in use. This is wasteful but also potentially dangerous. Plugins that are left idle and not kept up to date cause vulnerabilities in your website, which can be exploited by hackers. Be choosy about the plugins you use and delete the ones you don’t need.

Responsible website ownership
Old and poorly optimised websites are slower, less efficient and use more resources. They provide an inferior experience for your visitors and are damaging to the environment. This is one of the more technical aspects of being a website owner and it is advisable to seek professional support and advice to address this.

Keep that mailbox tidy
If left unchecked your mailbox can become a dumping ground for every e-mail you have ever sent and received. Redundant E-mails stored in your web hosting account are taking up server space, like a digital landfill. Delete old e-mails that you’re sure you no longer need, especially those with attachments and newsletters with images. Do this both in your inbox and sent items. If you’re worried about deleting e-mails that you may want to access later then download them and create an archive. Be sensible though, back ups are still worth taking to make sure you don't lose anything vital.

Wind powered website hosting
Carbon emissions are a waste product of burning fossil fuels. Currently greenhouse gases created by web hosting servers and cloud computing powered by non-renewable resources is equivalent to that of the aviation industry. Don’t contribute to this pollution, choose website hosting powered by renewable energy, like our Green Hosting. Our Centro datacentre in London, which houses the hosting servers, routers and cooling systems runs entirely on wind generated electricity from UK wind farms and employs energy efficient design principles meaning it uses less energy as a whole.

Other benefits of lowering your digital waste

As is often the case, there are other advantageous outcomes of running a more environmentally friendly, low waste website; Its efficiency will be improved and in turn so will your SEO, It will be more accessible to a wider audience, especially those with slower connections and it will be more secure. Reducing the chances of your website or e-mails becoming vulnerable to hackers or phishing attempts will save you time, money and credibility  – everyone benefits.

If you would like to know more about our wind powered website hosting service or how we can help your website run more efficiently then do get in touch.

* The Shift Project video guide - This is not a recommendation and we cannot be responsible for any use of this guide.

Resources referenced above

1) Impakter - Hungry for Data, Starving the World

2) Data Center Knowledge - The Data Center Dilemma: Is Our Data Destroying the Environment?

3) Information Age - A perfect storm: the environmental impact of data centres

4) Data Center Knowledge - The Data Center Dilemma: Is Our Data Destroying the Environment?

5) Independent - Global warming: Data centres to consume three times as much energy in next decade, experts warn

6) Market Watch - 175 Zettabytes by 2025! A data deluge is round the corner

7) The Shift Project - The Unsustainable Use of Online Video

More resources and interesting reading

Data Center Knowledge - State of the Data Center Industry, 2018 – Where We are and What to Expect
The Shift Project - “Lean ICT: Towards digital sobriety”: Our new report on the environmental impact of ICT
Greenpeace - Click Clean Report 2017
Data Economy - Data centres of the world will consume 1/5 of Earth’s power by 2025
Nature - How to stop data centres from gobbling up the world’s electricity
The Guardian - Our phones and gadgets are now endangering the planet