The zero waste movement tends to focus heavily on the physical trash, the trash we can put in our trash jars and display to the world. There is nothing wrong with fighting to minimize the enormous amounts of trash every person on average generates; but when it comes to sustainability, I have personally had the urge to move deeper every time I’ve felt I’ve met one of my goals. The invisible impact we have on the world is just as big, if not bigger, than our physical footprint. Every time we plug in our electronics, every time we buy new clothing, every time we consume a meal, and every time we travel we have an impact that we cannot put in our trash jars, an impact we cannot see, but an impact that affects the world nonetheless.
A 2015 report found that data centers and their massive energy consumption are responsible for about 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which makes the internet as polluting as plane travel
I work online and I profit from the use of the internet, however, just because someone profits from something does not mean we cannot criticize it, so today we are going to talk about the impact of the internet, aaaand some small things everyone can do to be a bit more conscious online.
The Independent reported in 2016 that data centers will consume three times as much energy as they are currently using over the course of the next decade — and they already account for more terawatt-hours of electricity used than all of the United Kingdom.
There are two aspects of the internet that account for its overall impact, the first is manufacturing and shipping, and the second is powering and cooling. All electronic devices are born with a high carbon footprint because it requires a lot of resources to produce laptops, servers, smartphones, etc (pssst 1 smartphone requires 230 kilos of raw materials to produce), these items have to be shipped all around the world as well. This aspect is not 100% invisible to the consumer, because we have physical products that represent the resources used, maybe we do not think about it as often as we should, but the second aspect of the impact of the internet is completely invisible to most consumers: cooling and powering. The internet is a physical thing, although it does not feel like it. Everything online is stored in data centers that require power to keep running. It was estimated that there were 500,000 data centers in the world in 2012, but that number has increased to more than 8 million, and still rising. The data centers produce a massive amount of heat, so they rely heavily on air conditioners to keep them cooled down. Many data centers today rely on fossil fuels for power, although some companies are making efforts to switch to renewable sources of energy.
In 2016, data center operators placed sustainability at the very bottom of a list of challenges that the industry faced. In 2018, it was the fourth-most pressing issue.
In 2017 Green Peace published a Click Clean report showing how different streaming services and online platforms scored on their sustainability effort, this was measured depending on the platform’s innovation, energy sources, and data-storage. You can find out here how Netflix, YouTube, and HBO (among others) scored on the test – find the report here
Tips for a more conscious online presence:
- Be less online (I know I had to say it though). But seriously, rather than streaming a movie and a show, read a book or watch an old DVD, if you, like me, consider yourself a dinosaur that still has their DVD player.
- Don’t watch alone. If you have the option, then try and gather some friends or family and watch something together. It’s much better to watch loads of people on one screen rather than each person sitting alone streaming individually.
- Don’t stream shows, music, or movies for background noises. I’ve done this a ton, just having something run in the background while doing something else. But try not to, if you have a show or some music you really like it can be better to buy it as a file, so you can play it offline.
- Is it better to buy physical CDs or DVDs than streaming? No, a study from 2014 found that the impact of a physical object is still higher than streaming something a couple of times. But if it’s something you know you are going to watch/listen to a lot, then buy a file you can access offline instead.
- Check out which sites are the most environmentally friendly. The Green Peace Click Clean report can give you an insight into which platforms are better than others. (It does not mean that they are carbon neutral though, so all the stuff above still apply)
- Clean out your cloud. Do you have 3 different Dropbox accounts full of old stuff you don’t need? Delete it, those files actually require energy to store, and if you don’t need them, maybe it’s time for them to go.
- Store offline. I’ve used the same second hand hard drive for 8 years and it works like a charm, I store most files on there, rather than in the cloud ( the really really really important files are still in the cloud though, but I keep it to a minimum)
- Use a carbon positive search engine. Instead of using Google, because that is what we have always done, take a look at Ecosia, a search engine that plants trees when you use it.