New technologies are so instinctive and accommodating that it is hard to imagine that they have harmful effects on the environment. However, liking a publication, watching a video, or saving documents on a drive or cloud pollutes. Everything that takes place on the Web is saved in data centers or data centers. These are gigantic warehouses with the necessary computer equipment for the processing and storage of computer data. Digital technology causes 4% of greenhouse gas emissions: it’s twice as much as air traffic! Not to mention that the very manufacture of connected devices is a source of pollution. At the time of the 4th industrial revolution and the global warming crisis, it is time to become aware of our impact on ecology. What solutions are there to reduce digital pollution? How to understand it and make users aware of a sustainable and green Internet? Here are some thoughtful steps.
Understand the 4 different sources of digital pollution
1. The production of high-tech devices: an unsustainable system?
First of all, the production of technological devices immediately poses an environmental and ethical problem. Indeed, the minerals needed for a smartphone are extracted in unsanitary conditions, often in developing countries. Human rights are not respected there: child labor is a reality. This is what makes Bela Logophile, founder of the Maison de Informatique plus Responsible, say that we have “blood minerals in our hands and in our pockets”.
In addition, manufacturing a smartphone requires more than 50 raw materials and liters of water. Abiotic resources (natural resources not made by humans) are not renewable, which poses a problem for the management of nature reserves.
2. The use of connected devices: excessive energy consumption?
Secondly, the devices pollute through excessive use.
“We have the impression that a “like”, an e-mail or a video chat […] goes through the internal waves of our mobile phones, which is not at all the case. It will browse the entire Internet infrastructure which is made up of relay antennas, wife boxes, submarine cable networks, satellites, data centers, and therefore energy networks, which need nuclear power plants, coal, gas, and oil-fired power stations. Guillaume Patron, journalist, and author of Lender du Numérique. The journey after a Like
Thus, using the title of Céline’s famous novel, the journalist recalls the hidden face of the Internet. Far too often we feel that our interactions have no consequences. We imagine digital documents as less polluting than paper. It is this lack of knowledge that leads to the overuse of connected devices.
3. Data pollution: is storage heating up the planet?
In addition, the storage of data-by-data centers contributes to global warming. Giant air conditioners are used to ventilate the places housing the computers, which process information transmitted continuously on the Web. Thus, the more data we multiply, the greater our carbon impact. This volume is growing exponentially, doubling every two years. We must realize that a cloud is not dematerialized: it has a physical reality that has an impact on the ecology and health of our planet.
4. The question of recycling and waste: are computers and smartphones hiding to die?
Finally, if 53% of digital pollution is due to data centers and network infrastructures, the rest is due to consumer equipment. In terms of recyclability, we are far from the mark since only 1% of the metals used in the development of electronic devices are recyclable. We could develop a circular economy through reuse and secondhand. However, today, the level of obsolescence is such that digital waste is an environmental and ethical disaster. There is a digital waste of the equivalent of five thousand Eiffel towers that have been exported, illegally, from the richest countries to the poorest countries. Whether at the beginning or the end of the life of technological products, the digital economy is unethical, and trade is far from fair.
Today, the management of Information Technology (IT) waste is a major environmental problem, but also a humanitarian issue.
Educate and innovate to raise user awareness of a sustainable and green Internet
According to the NGO Digital for the Planet, more than 7 out of 10 French people are unaware of this pollution. The latter, caused by digital technology, cannot be seen. There is a cruel lack of pedagogy around connected devices. We use them all day long, draining the battery, and end up replacing them for the wrong reasons.
Put in place a communication strategy
We need a pedagogy led by governments and by large IT groups. Raising awareness of our use of the Internet requires public debate and communication campaigns. The goal is to raise awareness of the cause and find solutions together. Guillaume Patron recalls that the apparent free Internet causes damage. If we had to pay for each video watched or each scroll, and not on a flat-rate basis as it exists, we would think twice. He proposes to organize educational outings in data centers in order to confront the material reality of digital technology.
It is also necessary to educate by developing a more ethical communication strategy within companies. One of the challenges is to convert internal values to make them more sustainable. We often learn to use a computer or tablet without really understanding how it all works. Words like “cloud” obscure the physical reality of the Internet and make us feel like everything is working like magic.
Invest in research and innovation to reduce the carbon footprint
Several IT manufacturers are implementing directives to meet the requirements of CSR (Social and Environmental Responsibility supervised by social media verification service, Agency for Ecological Transition). Digital manufacturers, in telephony, are trying to find more responsible materials in order to produce more “Fair Phones”. We are trying to produce smartphones in a less polluting and more ethical way.
Innovation is also at the heart of the fight against pollution. In 2018, Microsoft immerses a data center of more than 800 servers in Scottish waters and shows that it is possible to cool them naturally. In addition, several new-generation data centers are located in very windy places. This free cooling system requires less mechanical ventilation.
We can also think of Neutral IT, a company that recovers the heat created by data centers to heat the water of a swimming pool or that of taps in private homes. This technological innovation makes it possible to counterbalance the loss of energy that is harmful to the environment.
Thinking about your daily internet use
Digital pollution: a reflection of a sick society?
Beyond the material reality of the IT industry, digital pollution reveals several things about our society. Indeed, it is the consequence of consumerist logic and a culture of instantaneous. As Bela Logophile says, we are in a “totally drunk” society. We are not aware of what we consume and we cultivate the idea that it is an infinitely renewable activity. Awareness of digital damage allows us to question our society and its values.
While digital is very recent in the history of humanity, it seems so powerful in our daily lives that a simple deceleration seems unthinkable. What does this compulsion say about us? What void does it fill? It’s time to ask yourself these questions in order to consume differently.
Are there actions to minimize our impact on the ecology?
Admittedly, we know that the bulk of pollution is not due to the direct consumption of users, but there are simple, common-sense actions to take on a daily basis to limit your carbon footprint. We do not always measure the fact that each click weighs heavily on the energy balance of our overall consumption. We can think of:
- regularly delete their emails and empty their trash;
- use the Wi-Fi___33 network rather than 4G;
- ask yourself the question of your interest in this or that publication that you want to share with your community.
Finally, wondering if we really need a new connected device or a new phone can have a significant impact. As a “consummator”, our greatest power resides in the fact of consuming less to fight against the obsolescence of our devices.
Is it possible to imagine a digital system closer to ecological and ethical issues? As web professionals, we, therefore, have our role to play in promoting more sustainable digital technology. If you need enlightening, conscious, and engaging content, do not hesitate to contact one of our specialized writers!