Energy. How we make it. How we use it. And, of course, how we waste it. Arguably one of the main topics of conversation nowadays. And while we are finally seeing an increased focus on “going green” and reducing our ecological footprint, one area remains often overlooked: digital pollution. Just like cars and factories, our use of the internet and electronic devices has an impact on CO2 emissions. And as an increasing number of companies are changing their practices to be more responsible and meaningful of the environment, digital pollution has to be part of the discussion. Tomorrow, it won’t be possible to avoid it. Let’s briefly recap what digital pollution is, and why we’ll hear more about it in 2023.
What is digital pollution and why it matters?
Digital pollution can be described as all the pollution produced by the entire manufacturing process of a digital tool (from the extraction of raw materials needed for production, to the carbon footprint of the whole supply chain), by the usage and disposal of these digital tools, and by the global internet usage. It includes :
• How we make electronic devices (computers, phones, smart devices…) and how we use them;
• How we use the internet (emails, cloud, video streaming) and the impact on energy consumption in data centers;
• E-waste, or the improper disposal of electronic devices and their components;
Making electronic devices requires a lot of natural resources and the pollution produced during the manufacturing process of an electronic device goes beyond the carbon footprint. Thus the need for a multi-criteria approach to look at the issue. A recent French study evaluated France’s digital environmental impact based on 12 environmental factors: abiotic resource depletion – (fossil, mineral & metal during the manufacturing process), acidification, eco-toxicity, carbon footprint, ionizing radiation, fine particle emissions, ozone creation, raw materials, waste generation, primary energy consumption and final energy consumption. The production phase of a computer requires more energy than what the computer will consume over its normal life. What’s sometimes hard to grasp is that any device connected to the internet consumes energy and produces pollution far beyond what the device is consuming itself.
To realize the impact of digital pollution, here are some key figures :
• There are 38 billion active devices on earth;
• In 2019, digital activity consumed about 10% of electricity globally. If you think that this number went down since, think again.
• Digital pollution is responsible for 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This number is expected to double by 2025;
Those are big numbers. But what does it mean for you, curious reader? Well, for example, 70kg of raw materials are needed to produce a 120g smartphone. That’s five-hundred times more materials than the final product, and those materials travel four times around the globe between extraction, production and distribution. Or did you know that an internet box uses as much energy as a fridge (150 à 300 kWh/year)? This isn’t a typo. A fridge. Those big numbers are getting a bit bigger now, right?
That’s why sensibilization is key. We were taught as kids to save tap water. The time couldn’t be better to start learning a few things about digital sobriety.
The time is right to start talking about digital pollution.
In 2019, l’Observatoire du Numérique BVA/Digital Society Forum released a study saying that less than 30% of the French population was aware of the pollution created by using electronic devices. As businesses have always had a key role in helping educate their employees and keeping them up to date with society’s best practices, their role couldn’t be more important.
Encouraging employees to recycle or donate old electronic devices to reduce e-waste is essential. The UN says that 75% of used electronic devices are not recycled, and keep in mind that there are more than 630 million electronic devices in France. Fighting against programmed obsolescence in the workplace can also have beneficial consequences for businesses as it can make sense both ecologically and economically to buy second-hand equipment or repair those that can be salvaged. The lifespan of an average tech device is often much longer than what we see in the workplace. Unfortunately, the lack of good maintenance and some fiscal amortization vision can contribute to a culture of over-consumption. Technology advances at an incredible pace, but that doesn’t mean that our everyday devices should be changed at the same pace. That’s why companies can play a major role when it comes to changing perceptions and fighting against psychological obsolescence.
The pandemic triggered a new era of remote working possibilities. But the increasing amount of digital communication and video conferences have an impact on energy consumption and everyone should be aware of it in order to question some practices that we might take for granted. Do we always need to have our webcams on for that daily reporting? And do I really need 4K resolution to present this PowerPoint? Those kinds of ecological reflexes, though small, are at the core of any responsible strategy.
Reducing digital pollution should be part of any company’s responsible strategy that wants to reduce its carbon footprint and overall impact on the environment. And while sensibilization is essential, businesses also have to look at how they can optimize their operations to take into account the challenges behind digital pollution. Companies should lead by example when it comes to disposing of old devices, or managing IT assets to minimize their energy consumption. Green IT and GreenOps solutions are also very efficient at supporting IT departments in their decarbonization.
At Sopht, we created a GreenOps solution that is the perfect way to help the environment, update your digital infrastructure and improve your finances all at once. Because going green isn’t just about being environmentally conscious; it’s about saving money, too. We offer multi-cloud monitoring to rationalize your infrastructure and related costs by measuring and comparing your different Cloud Providers environmental efficiency. Our IT asset management services allow you to consolidate, organize and pilot all data related to your IT inventory (laptops, screens, smartphones, routers…) to better amortize your carbon and financial footprint. This helps us understand how your users are interacting with their devices so that you can better manage your IT assets and plan for decarbonization.
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