The Toll of Digital Pollution
Sun, April 11, 2021

The Toll of Digital Pollution



Living without the internet is almost impossible in today’s world. All us rely on it to scroll through our social media feeds, communicate with others, and update ourselves on current news. The Global Digital Report 2019 revealed that the number of people using the internet has surged over the past year. Researchers found that more than one million people have been entered the online world for the first time each day since January 2018. 

According to We Are Social, a global agency that delivers world-class creative ideas with forward-thinking brands, the report shows that internet users are growing at a rate of more than 11 new users per second, resulting in that impressive total of a million new users every day. Some of this may be attributable to more up-to-date reporting of user numbers, but that doesn’t detract from the implications of this growth. The researchers found that there are 5.11 billion unique mobile users in the world today - up by 2% in the past year; 4.39 billion internet users in 2019 - up from 9% from January 2018; 3.48 billion social media users in 2019, and 3.26 billion people users of social media on mobile devices in January 2019.

These figures show that people seem to be caught in an almost daily reckoning with the role of the internet in our society. However, this huge dependency on the internet is hurting our planet. The grappling impacts of digital pollution have become so potentially large that they implicate our collective well-being. “Digitalization of our culture produces negative external effects on the environment. Manufacturing, use and disposal of our gadgets create increased demand for energy, produce toxic waste and contribute to air pollution,” Robert Godes, founder, president and chief technology officer for Brillouin Energy Corporation, said. 



What is Digital Pollution?

Digital pollution, the fastest-growing carbon emission source in the world, is the negative outcome of the internet, one of the best tools humans have ever created. It can be divided into two main types: first, the type that is generated by manufacturing devices, their batteries and running their processes and so forth; second, the pollution that is connected to the energy that is required by those devices, and this energy is creating a significant carbon footprint.

According to Natixis, the corporate, investment management and financial services arm of Groupe BPCE, the digital sector creates several different types of pollution. This includes pollution from the production of IT hardware; pollution from e-waste i.e. used electrical and electronic equipment and pollution from our daily digital use. For instance, anytime we use our computers and smartphones, we leave a considerable ecological footprint behind. Previous studies have shown that billions of internet-connected devices could produce 3.5% of global emissions within a decade, which could rise to 14% by 2040. 

“Every time you perform simple daily actions like browsing a website, sending and receiving email, using an app on your phone, saving a file to your cloud drive or searching Google, data gets transferred between your device and the server that the website, app or software is hosted on,” Ben Clifford, managing director of London-based Erjjio Studios Limited, a green hosting, website design, and development company, said. 



Impacts of Digital Pollution

Fossil fuels and other byproducts of the industrial age have affected people’s health and contributed to the climate crisis. Digital pollution, fueled by technology growth and dependence, has had an unintended yet profound impact on society and our environment. Reports show that the internet generates 2% of carbon emissions on the planet. In one hour, more than 12 billion emails are sent, which represent more than 4,000 tons of oil. About 300 tons of these emissions could be avoided if 50,000 people delete 1,000 emails each.

According to AccuWeather, an online site that provides local and international weather forecasts, digital pollution can be attributed to three sources: manufacturing, practices and e-waste/recycling. In 2015 alone, about 1.5 million tons of waste were generated out of 710 million electronic devices manufactured, equivalent to 166 times the size of the Eiffel Tower. Experts said that the entire process of making a smartphone comprises more than 80% of environmental impacts. Meanwhile, digitization represents 16% of electricity consumption, resulting in an increase in electricity consumption by 8.5% annually.

“The ores and precious metals contained in electronic devices can be toxic for manufacturers, if in contact with waste, and for the environment. Some components such as chromium are now prohibited because of their toxicity,” the experts said. 

According to HR in Asia, a human resource online media publication, Felix Hürlimann at Squirro said that the best-known representative of digital pollution is email spam because emails stored in a mailbox make many servers run uninterruptedly in data centers. Aside from that, new ways of digital pollution are spreading through social networks or push messages on smartphones. “And in the near future it potentially will also reach your fridge, your watch or even your clothes. And, albeit digital pollution is not poisonous like environmental pollution, it can still be harmful to the health of the economy,” Hürlimann said. 



Edouard Nattée, the co-founder and CEO of Cleanfox, a platform that enables users to delete and unsubscribe from unwanted newsletters flooding their mailbox, explained that mindless browsing every day can eventually generate a large footprint. “Within five minutes of scrolling, you could be downloading several gigabytes of data, for no reason at all. Browsing in a way that’s not environmentally responsible is something that can generate a massive amount of CO2 emissions,” he said.

Aside from the environmental impacts of digital pollution, it has also caused increased anxiety and fear, polarization, fragmentation of a shared context, and loss of trust in people and our society. People worry about the future of democratic society amid the anonymization of public discourse, dissemination of inaccurate information in an instant, amplification of the most odious beliefs in social media posts, and vulnerabilities that enable foreign governments to interfere in our elections.

According to the MIT Sloan Management Review, a research-based magazine and digital platform, the digital economy increases polarization by giving airtime to more extreme views and contributes to polarization by increasing the divide between the rich and poor. With these growing impacts, tackling and addressing digital pollution is a shared responsibility. Aside from recognizing that our huge internet usage is a heavy environmental polluter, people and companies should play a part in reducing our carbon footprint.