Article on the environmental cost of digital

The environmental costs of digital

Posted in: Opinion

What digital activity have you undertaken today? Certainly, you’ve accessed this article from a device, maybe a laptop or a smartphone. Perhaps you’ve done some shopping, played some music, or streamed a TV programme?

Every digital interaction has a carbon footprint. Carbon dioxide is emitted due to the energy needed for digital devices and the wireless networks we use. The internet requires power-hungry servers to support it.

According to the BBC, each one of us is responsible for 414 kg (912 lbs) of carbon dioxide from digital technologies each year^.

From the escalating problem of digital hardware waste to the carbon footprint of data centres, Galloways take a look at the cost digital has on the environment.

The Cloud

We’re not talking white fluffy things that hold rain, obviously. We’re referring to the internet. Or rather, the software and services that run on the internet and the data stored in online file hosting services, instead of locally on your computer.

It’s easy to think of the Cloud as some benign, non-tangible mass up in the ether, an environmentally friendly way of storing data according to the cloud migration companies, who promise sustainability and lower carbon footprints.

In reality, the Cloud casts a shadow across our earth.

The Cloud comprises thousands of data processing centres across the world, 456 in the UK alone. Each data centre requires electricity – a lot of it – to keep running. If the centre goes down, the data is rendered irretrievable, until power is restored.

According to one report, the entire data centre industry uses more than 90 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity every year. To create this much energy, you would need the annual output of around 34 coal-powered power plants. Globally, 3% of all electricity used in the world goes to data centres – more than we use here in the UK in an entire year. The more information we store in the Cloud, the more power that will be needed to cope with the required capacity.

In 2019, it was estimated that data centres worldwide generated the same volume of carbon emissions as the global airline industry (in terms of fuel consumption). Lancaster University estimates that the Cloud is responsible for between 0.25 and 1.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally. And greenhouse gases lead to acid rain.

With more aspects of life and work becoming digitised, data centres are projected to increase in number. It is expected that there will be 29.3 billion devices online by 2030.
Server facilities, once cupboard-sized, are growing in size. The big three cloud vendors (Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud Platform and Microsoft Azure) now build “hyper-scale” warehouses, covering hundreds of thousands of square metres.

Data centres rely on water, to generate electricity and to keep mechanisms cool. A medium-sized data centre will use as much water as three average-sized hospitals. In the financial year 2018, Google used 15.79 billion litres of water, the majority consumed by its global fleet of data centres. Microsoft used 3.5 billion litres in the same period, again mostly through its data centre.

Water availability is a major concern in the context of climate change. In the last 100 years, global water use has increased six-fold and continues to grow by 1% each year. Many areas are already water-poor: the south east is classed as “seriously water stressed”, urban water supplies are under stress to meet population demand and still, our water is being mismanaged, polluted and depleted.

Not every cloud has a silver lining.

Big techs offset their carbon emissions and recycle as much water as they are able, when cooling their data centres. Is it enough?


E-waste is discarded for electrical or electronic devices: anything with a plug, a cord or electrical component. Televisions, computers, mobile phones, kitchen equipment, tools and toys, everything from air conditioners to Zen tabletop water features: once it’s discarded, it’s waste. The term also refers to used electronics which are destined for refurbishment, reuse, resale, salvage recycling through material recovery or disposal.

Rapid changes in technology often render devices obsolete. Consider the introduction of the compact cassette, which was launched in August 1963. In 1982, the compact disc took over. In 1992, the world was introduced to the MiniDisc and in 1995, MP3 players.

Fast forward and the old music formats seem redundant, as society moves towards digital products for streaming. In 60 years, advancing technology has rendered its predecessors obsolete, niche and retro.

Consumer need for the latest gadget means that society is happy to discard and upgrade. In the United States, an estimated 70% of heavy metals in landfills comes from discarded electronics.

Electronic waste or E-waste, is the fastest growing waste stream in the world. In 2018, an estimated 50 million metric tonnes of E-waste was reported. That’s the equivalent of one million adult whales; almost eight Great Pyramids of Giza; 99 Eiffel Towers. This vast quantity of discarded technology was christened “a tsunami of waste” by the United Nations.

In 2021, a total of 57.4 million metric tonnes of E-waste was generated. The total is growing by an estimated 2 million metric tonnes every year.

It is estimated that there is more than 347 million metric tonnes of E-waste on the earth*** and that’s a conservative guess.


OK, so that’s a term we made up. Recycling E-waste is the process of shredding electronic waste into small pieces. One shredded, valuable material is collected and can be reused in a new electronic device.

It’s not easy, being in the electronics recycling industry although it is important.

Electronic items must be handled with care from the moment they are returned to waste. The chemical elements they contain are toxic and guarantee environmental impact. Although

E-waste represents less than 5% of global waste annually, the damage to our health and the environment exceeds the destructive power of all other combined waste.

E-waste contains lead, cadmium and beryllium; mercury and arsenic; brominated flame retardants, rhodium, platinum and tellurium; tin copper and aluminium. If waste scraps are exposed to strong UV radiation or if they corrode, these toxic substances can be released into the atmosphere. Once free, they penetrate the soil and pollute ground and water bodies.

This contamination can find its way into our homes and our bodies.

Currently, it is possible to machine-recycle only 10 out of the 60 chemical elements present in e-waste. Research has found that direct contact with hazardous e-waste materials (even in some formal e-waste recycling settings) and inhaling toxic chemicals result in increases in serious health issues. Spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, mutations and congenital malformations, abnormal thyroid function, decreased lung function and neurobehavioral disturbances, to name only a few.

The Non-Renewable Materials in Your Tech

Many of the materials that make up our smartphones and personal computers come from non-renewable minerals. Once it’s gone, it’s gone and there are no viable alternatives. Gold, silver, platinum, palladium, gallium and indium: these are not minerals that can be sustainably harvested. Up to 80% of the materials in phones can be recycled*,yet a third of people still have old phones collecting dust.

Lithium is a relatively common mineral. Even so, its price is on the rise. Best known for its use in the production of rechargeable batteries, demand has increased largely thanks to electric vehicles.

Many devices aren’t made for recycling. In an effort to reduce size and bulk, smartphone batteries can’t always be removed. LG, Motorola and Google all released modular phone models, but none of them took off. The relative low cost of electric and electronic items means that many will prefer to replace than repair.

Even if you did want to repair, it could be that trying to do so would be impeded, if not forbidden, due to copyright laws.

The High Cost of E-Waste

In 2020, the e-waste recycling market was valued at more than £41 billion. It is forecast that the market will reach a value of more than £116 billion by 2028.
Hairdryers to heat pumps; calculators to cookers; kettles to keyboards; laptops to LEDs, our thirst for technology is literally costing the earth.

^ greenhouse gas emissions estimated to be produced in the manufacture and running of digital technologies divided between all internet users around the world
* RecycleNow

** Which, 2020

*** (2023)

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