Why Reducing Digital Waste Needs a Change in Mindset

inbox with a ridiculous number of unread messages (10,652)

Gideon Tsang // CC BY SA 2.0

There are lots of simple yet effective steps we can take in order to reduce digital waste. Either as individuals or organizations we can:

  1. Reduce the creation of wasteful data or content.
  2. Make sure that what we create contains the least waste possible.
  3. Make sure that what we create has the longest life possible.
  4. Make sure that we maintain what we have created, and that as soon as it becomes waste, we remove it.
  5. Ensure that the devices that we use create the least waste possible.

I still believe digital has an important role to play in helping us reduce our harmful habits. I just watched a presentation where it showed that by introducing a digital device into a shower that told you how much water you were using, it helped reduce water consumption.

The problem with digital is that it often drives over-consumption, rather than conservation. This has taken me years to realize. For example, email seems so obviously better than physical mail.

A physical letter: 29g of CO2
An email: 4g
Spam: 0.3g

According to Statista, in 2019 there were about 405 billion domestic letters sent on a global basis. According to Cisco, there are about 390 billion emails sent every single day, of which 328 billion (84%) are spam. So, every year about 120 trillion spam and 22 trillion ordinary emails are sent.

This is the problem with digital. We make it easy. We make it cheap or free. Production and consumption explode.

If the delivery of a physical letter creates 29g of CO2, then delivering 405 billion a year creates almost 12 million tons of CO2. Delivering 22 trillion ordinary emails creates almost 90 million tons. 120 trillion spam emails create 36 million tons of CO2.

An average, healthy tree can sequester about 10kg of CO2 per year. Every year, just to deal with spam, we would need to plant 3.6 billion trees. That’s 3,600,000,000 trees. Just to deal with spam.

Open rates for the ordinary emails that get through seem to be, on average, less than 50%. What we see happening here is a huge amount of wholly unnecessary waste. Unopened and spam email could be responsible for 80 million tons of CO2 every year.

Why? For what benefit? Many employees are stressed out by email, spending up to 30% of their working week on it. Digital unleashes the volume monster. We need to tame digital.

Digital is the new sugar. Digital is our greatest addiction. We must develop new skills where we manage digital responsibly. We create and send too much of everything. We are overloaded and we are the overloaders. We can do so much better.

To solve the climate crisis, we must slow down. Produce less. Consume less. If we do, we’ll find we’ll be a lot happier, both mentally and physically.

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