How Green is the Digital Age?

April 25, 2023

Living in the Digital Age

Nowadays, technology is an integral part of our daily lives in almost all of our activities. The access to information in real time, the ability to learn or communicate fast and more effectively without the barrier of the physical location and the unprecedented entertainment options are only some of the perks that we enjoy by living in the Digital Age. Undoubtedly, digitization and its benefits have significantly improved our lives, but what is the impact on the planet? The manufacturing of digital devices we need to satisfy our needs in the Digital Age along with the infrastructure required to support their continuous and undisturbed operation have led to rapidly increasing e-waste streams and CO2 emissions. 

What is e-waste?

Electronic waste, or alternatively e-waste is all the discarded electrical or electronic equipment (EEE). It doesn’t matter if it’s broken or working, parts or whole devices, when discarded, all fall under the e-waste label. To make e-waste management easier, e-waste has been grouped into 6 categories in a practical and sensible way.

  1. Temperature exchange equipment
  2. Screens, monitors and equipment containing screens
  3. Lamps
  4. Large equipment
  5. Small equipment
  6. Small IT and telecommunication equipment

The environmental impact of e-waste

While electronic devices are pretty safe for use, disposing them in landfills poses a great threat to the environment. Electronic devices contain forms of toxic materials which eventually dissolve in microscopic traces when they are buried. These traces of toxic materials pollute the ground, the nearby and underground water streams, leading eventually to expanding the pollution to a wider area surrounding the landfill, to the freshwater sources and the wildlife.

How much e-waste is produced

E-waste is also the fastest growing waste stream worldwide. In 2019, a total of 53.6 Mt of e-waste was produced globally, from which only about 17% was managed in an environmentally sound manner. The treatment of the rest remains unknown, presumably resulting in landfills. As shown on the following graph from the Future E-waste Scenarios, e-waste stream is expected to double by 2050.

The value of e-waste

Additionally, e-waste contains valuable resources that can be extracted when e-waste is recycled. Specifically, in the untreated quantity of e-waste from 2019, the worth of the raw materials lost is estimated to be approximately 47.6 billion USD. The impact of these lost resources is not limited to their lost financial value, but also includes the fact that many of them are being depleted from nature as well, making the process of mining them more and more difficult, hence more expensive and more harmful for the environment.

Recycling e-waste

Allowing these valuable resources to end up in landfills while mining their depleting natural counterparts is not sustainable at all, and for sure it will take its toll in the future generations if we do not start acting now. Raw materials salvaged from recycled e-waste can be used for various applications across different industries. For example, in a new study, researchers at the University of Cagliari in Italy have shown that the gold in SIM cards and circuit boards can be extracted and used as catalysts for reactions in pharmaceutical manufacturing. Limiting as much as possible and recycling e-waste is an action that we all need to make part of our lives.

Legislation around e-waste

The EU has introduced the RoHS Directive and WEEE Directive, in 2003 and 2012 respectively, attempting to tackle the issue of the growing amount of e-waste. Since then, the importance of effectively treating e-waste kept rising along with e-waste streams, leading to revising these directives and to adopting additional actions. In March 2020, the European Commission presented a new circular economy action plan in which one of its priorities was the reduction of electronic and electrical waste. The proposal specifically outlines immediate goals like creating the right to repair and improving reusability in general, the introduction of a common charger and establishing a rewards system to encourage recycling electronics.

What about CO2?

As initially mentioned, living in the Digital Age leads to significant increase in CO2 emissions as well. While the digital transformation of our lives is usually perceived as greener and cleaner that its traditional analog counterpart, it is only partially true. It may be better to send a presentation through a file hosting service than printing it and sending it over a physical delivery service, but it is important to understand that there is still a CO2 footprint.

How digital services create CO2 emissions?

Our daily digital lives are consuming more electricity than ever before, even if we don’t use them. The easiest part is to understand that all of our digital devices and sensors used to turn our homes smart are consuming electricity for their operation. On the other hand, the part that usually slips from most people, is the energy consumed by digital services and their infrastructure. For example, the internet alone emits around 1.6 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually. According to recent research, in case one would like to treat the internet as a country, it would be the third in terms of energy consumption, topped only by the US and China. Communications industry in general is expected to represent 20% of all world’s electricity consumption by 2025.

Additionally to communications, our daily activities use tons of data, data that are stored to data centers which are basically large warehouses filled with servers, consuming a lot of power all across the world both for their operation but also for their cooling requirements. Approximately 30% of the data centers globally fully operate continuously on a 24/7 basis.

Did you know?

  • Sending an email emits about 0.3 to 4 g CO2? It’s small, right? But considering that 330 billion emails are sent daily, this is equivalent to having 7 million more cars on the streets.
  • Loading an average website emits around 1.76 g CO2, so a highly visited website, loaded around 100,000 times during a month, emits more than 2 tons of CO2 annually.
  • Video streaming represents approximately 63% of the internet usage globally and emits around 300 million tons of CO2 annually, which is roughly 1% of the total CO2 emissions around the world.

Having a one-hour long video conference with one person with a standard-definition video emits around 2.4 g CO2? Did you also know that by turning off your camera, you reduce your meeting’s carbon footprint by approximately 87%?

Worker in computer recycling plant dismounting desktop pc

How do we know?

Realizing that the Digital Age is not green enough to ensure our planet’s sustainability, in the team of Future Needs, we decided to take actions to raise awareness around this issue, but also provide alternatives. All of the above, along with the tips that will follow later on, are products of our research and work on the BeWEEN project (Be Well and Green When Digital). BeWEEN is an Erasmus+ we work on and its goal is to enhance Digital Education Readiness by building capacity in “healthier and more responsible use of digital technology”. BeWEEN will deliver a robust solution to be readily taken up by High School Teachers and Students to develop key digital Competences for Protecting Health and Well-being and for Protecting the Environment, as they are described in DigComp (the Digital Competence Framework for Citizens provides a common understanding of what digital competence is).

Future Needs participates in the BeWEEN project as a partner responsible for the development of the training programme material which will be piloted among High School Teachers, enhancing their Digital Education Readiness. Future Needs also leads the development of the BeWEEN Mobile Game which will be promoted to and piloted by youth learners aged 13-21 in 4 European countries.

As promised before, some tips follow.

Some every day tips 

Following our work, we give some every day tips below on how to reduce carbon footprint and to make responsible and sustainable use of digital devices and services in your everyday life:

  • Reduce streaming time. Streaming is one of the most energy consuming activities you can do. Downloading a file is much less energy-intensive.
  • Play songs as audio files rather than streaming them as videos, for example in YouTube. In case you stream the video, you can lower the resolution, it does not affect the sound.
  • Empty your email box regularly to reduce data storage.
  • Use WLAN networks instead of mobile networks when possible.
  • Store data locally as an individual.
  • Use the device as long as possible.
  • Dispose your old devices correctly.
  • Lower your monitor’s brightness. You will not see a significant difference between 80% and 100% brightness.
  • Use a renewable energy mix when possible.

Some more advanced tips for businesses and researchers

Some of the everyday tips can be applied for businesses as well. On the contrary with individuals, businesses should opt for using cloud services instead of keeping data internally to servers in their premises. Some other tips follow.

  • When using cloud services, choose the service that meets your needs and avoid oversizing your cloud storage.
  • Avoid having idle instances in the cloud, most of the cloud service providers offer monitoring facilities to track resource usage.
  • One of the best ways to improve efficiency is through more effective workload management. In addition to optimizing performance and resource usage, state-of-the-art workload managers are also energy aware.
  • Make use of HPC (high performance computing) on demand services that helps you fast-track projects and their results. HPC on demand saves the time and resources required to build and tune HPC systems by letting a team of experts handle solution configuration, deployment and management, helping you recognize more value, sooner and with less risk.
  • Educate your colleagues to be aware of their digital footprint is all operational processes.
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