Sustainable life

What is digital pollution? The environmental impact of technology

I had just got to the last step of my morning routine. After setting up my yoghurt, seeds, dried fruit and melba toast with marmalade, I let my phone update me about the latest news and newsletters. The kitchen was still dark, cosily enlightened by a small lamp on a corner, and it smelled of honey, dried apricots and mashed berries. I sat down, plunged my spoon into the bowl and without listening to the voice inside my head annoyingly observing “you should turn off your phone while you eat”, I read the very first email I’d received that morning. The title read “This email is bad for the environment”. “Well”, I thought, “great copywriting. So what?”. I opened the email and jumped into a rabbit hole that led me to realise how much my internet habits were damaging the environment. It was a wet blanket I had never, ever, considered web pollution to be that bad of a problem. Even worse – I had never, ever, considered web pollution to be a problem at all. Yes, I was reducing, reusing and recycling everything I could. I had even started volunteering to pester people for the importance of the famous three R-s, and I was proud of my newly acquired advocacy skills. And yet, it simply never occurred to me, for example, that the nth newsletter I received and never read could represent a useless waste of energy and resources. 4g of CO2e, to be precise.

So, did you know that the footprint of your tiny pretty email goes from 0.3g CO2e for a spam email to 4g CO2e for a regular email and 50g CO2e for one with a given attachment? Well, now you know it. Let’s see how this works.

What is digital pollution?

Digital pollution is a polluting phenomenon caused by fossil fuels used to produce the electricity necessary for the operation of data centres, servers and various network equipment, and from the production and disposal of the electronic devices we use. It is responsible for 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions and the current trend suggests a doubling of such emissions by 2030 due to the increase in the number of users worldwide.

In fact, the Internet is not immaterial, as it is made up of a multitude of computer equipment (computers, cables, antennas) allowing data (videos, photos, emails, web pages) to be stored and transferred to our devices. Such technologies have to be manufactured and powered, thus generating a significant energy cost.

How is digital pollution generated?

Our digital carbon footprint, i.e. the amount of emission we as individuals cause, is mainly linked to three areas of energy demand: data centres and networks, digital activities and device manufacturing and disposal.

First, increasing digital consumption automatically implies massive investments in digital infrastructures. Such infrastructures are those data centres where online information is collected, processed, stored and exchanged. Since they’re constantly running, they tend to get very hot. Therefore, making sure computers don’t overheat is of paramount importance to avoid a melting down of the internet. Cooling down activities however impacts electricity consumption and boost the emission of gases. This contributes to the increasing greenhouse effect and eventually to climate-change phenomena (rising temperatures, floods, droughts).

As far as services and platforms are concerned, researchers still struggle to understand the exact amount of pollution they produce. Current research suggests that most of the data stream and energy consumption comes from video streaming (60%) and represents 300 million tons of CO2. In this regard, the total global energy consumption produced by a streaming platform may reach 451,000 megawatt-hours per year on average, which is enough to power 37,000 homes.

And last but not certainly least, device manufacturing bears its share of responsibility as well. The entire production chain includes the extraction of raw materials and their transport, the manufacture of spare parts and their transport, the assembly of the finished products and… their transport to the country of distribution. Also, the more we miniaturize and make the components complex, the more we increase their impact on the environment. Interestingly, it takes 80 times more energy to produce a gram of a smartphone than a gram of a car.

Electronic waste dumps, cobalt and human rights (?)

But then, what happens when such devices don’t work or we don’t want to use them anymore? Here is another issue, as in most cases, we toss the whole production costs and their impacts in the trash together with our device. These actions create real e-graveyards that contribute to environmental pollution and enhance health problems, as in the Agbobloshie case in West Africa.

Another point I would like to make is the unsustainability of the number of human tragedies linked to the mining activity necessary to create our devices. Indeed, creating a smartphone requires dozens of metals from all over the world.

One of these key metals is the cobalt that powers the batteries of our electronic devices. This is mostly produced in Congo, and more importantly, most of those miners who extract the material are children. It has been estimated that children from mining districts have ten times more cobalt in their urine than other children, which greatly increases their risk of developing cancer. And by the way, most of them also work in unsafe mines that may easily collapse over them without us even caring.


Digital pollution and electronic waste.
Credits: Pixabay

How is digital pollution tackled?

We’ve seen that the amount of energy required to manufacture and power our devices, data centres, and related infrastructural needs is massive. As a result, how companies build and power their global digital infrastructure is rapidly becoming a central point in the transition to a fully renewably powered economy.

Among the big companies, Facebook started committing itself to be 100% renewably powered in 2011 and was shortly after followed by Apple and Google. Since then, many other companies have committed to the same goal, which means that they use renewable energy to power up data centres and generally commit to following the rules of circular economy and sustainability.

For example, if we look at Facebook 2019 Sustainability Report, it can be observed that in 2019, they achieved 86% renewable energy for their operations. Moreover, some local communities also benefit from such operations. The data centre located in Odense, Denmark, includes infrastructure to capture and deliver heat generated by their servers to the district heating system, which is enough to warm 6,900 homes in the neighbouring community.

Yet, there’s a long way to go, as most companies still need to fully commit and/or aren’t fully transparent on their energy sources.

What can we do as individuals to reduce our digital carbon footprint?

Obviously, governments around the world should develop laws that force companies to abide by certain environmental rules. At the same time, it’s not just companies that can make the internet greener. It’s also us, people. Hello there! Firstly, we should all loudly ask our governments to act and actually enforce those laws. Secondly, there are some small habits and actions we can take to reduce our digital carbon footprint while surfing the internet. Below is but a succinct list suggested by researchers that is described more in detail in this blog post.

  • Become aware of how web platforms support their activities.
  • Use search engines and platforms that are more committed to the environment.
  • Clean up your email box to decrease data consumption.
  • Watch low-resolution movies and videos.
  • Choose to reduce electronic waste, repair and extend the life of your devices or buy reconditioned ones.
  • Advocate, speak up, vote and choose sensibly.

I’m also curious about your experience: have you ever wondered about how your digital habits impact the environment?


Also, don’t forget to follow me on Instagram! 🙂

Sources and food for thought

Ademe (2019), La face cachée du numérique. Retrieved from

Amnesty International (2016). Is my phone powered by child labour?. Retrieved from

Annie Kelly (2019), ‘Apple and Google named in US lawsuit over Congolese child cobalt mining deaths’, The Guardian. Retrieved from

Facebook (2019). Facebook Sustainability Report 2019. Retrieved from

Greenpeace France (n.d.), La pollution numérique, qu’est-ce que c’est ?. Retrieved from

Greenpeace International (2017), Clicking clean: who is winning the race to build a green internet?, Retrieved from

Griffiths Sarah (2020), Why your internet habits are not as clean as you think. Retrieved from Scomodo (2020), Dirty data. L’impatto ambientale dell’infrastruttura delle telecomunicazioni. Retrieved from

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