digital pollution issue analyzed

Digital pollution refers to the pollution generated by all new technologies. Half of carbon dioxide emissions from this sector are due to the operation of the Internet (data transport and storage, manufacturing and maintenance of the network infrastructure) and another half to the manufacture of our IT equipment (computers, smartphones, tablets, etc.).

The pollution generated by the manufacture of digital terminals

All stages of an object’s life cycle, from the extraction of the raw materials that make it up to its end-of-life disposal, generate carbon dioxide emissions. This is called carbon weight. In this life cycle, it is the manufacture of a device that requires the most energy, much more than is needed to operate it.

The manufacturing chain can be summarized as follow: the extraction of the components and their transport, the manufacture of the parts and their transport, the assembly of the finished product and its transport to the country of distribution. A smartphone requires dozens of metals from all over the world: Congolese tantalum, Bolivian lithium, Australian gold, Chinese rare earths. This consumes energy and so produces carbon dioxide.

The production of a television set for example requires the extraction of 2.5 tons of raw materials and generates 350 kg of carbon dioxide. In other words, before it is even used, a television set emits as much CO₂ as a round trip from Paris to Barcelona by plane. And the more miniaturized and complex the components become, the greater their impact on the environment: it takes 80 times more energy to produce one gram of smartphone than one gram of car.

In addition to this excessive energy consumption, there is also the pollution of ecosystems and the human tragedies linked to mining activity. In the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, we talk about “blood minerals” because the illegal trade of these materials finances the civil war. In the Brazilian Amazon, the Waimiri-Atroari rivers are polluted by the tin and tantalum mining industry. In China’s Baotou region, the extraction of rare earths leads to significant toxic discharges into the air, water and soil.

The end-of-life of these digital objects is no better. Their design does not allow good recovery of the metals contained in them (only 1% of tantalum is recycled). And 75% of the waste is transferred from European recycling channels to be exported illegally to China, India or Africa. They end their lives in huge open dumps.

Pollution caused by the operation of the Internet network

The Internet network is made up of a multitude of computer equipment (computers, cables, antennas, etc.), which allows us to store and transfer data (videos, photos, emails, web pages, etc.) to our home terminals. All these digital technologies must be manufactured and powered, generating a significant energy cost.

IT sector is currently responsible for 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and the sharp increase in usage suggests that this carbon footprint will double by 2025. This is due to the increase in the number of users worldwide and our consumption of data.

Video streaming accounts for 60% of data flows on the Internet, due to the weight of video files. A film such as Pulp Fiction, offered by Netflix in very high resolution (4K), weighs around 10 gigabytes, i.e. 200,000 times more than an email without an attachment (50 ko). Worldwide consumption of video streaming (VoD, pornography, music videos, etc.) emits 300 million tons of dioxide carbon every year.

This carbon footprint is inflated by the significant use of fossil fuels (gas and coal) to power data centers. While more and more companies are moving towards 100% renewable energy, some companies (Amazon, Netflix, Pinterest, Twitter) are still lagging.

How can you reduce our digital pollution?

1. Extending the lifespan of IT equipment

  • As long as your device works, you don’t need to buy a new one. Maybe a new smartphone has just come out, more beautiful, more powerful, cooler, but do you really need one?
  • If your device is broken, try to fix it.
  • Buy second-hand and “low-tech” items. Prefer reconditioned appliances (cheaper and less polluting), and choose products with the lowest possible energy consumption.

2. Limit online pollution

  • Clean up your mailboxes: Disable newsletters (thanks to CleanFox or Mailstrom), delete your old emails (even the trash) and archive attachments. The environmental weight of an e-mail with a heavy attachment can be as much as 120 pages.
  • Limit the number of recipients in your mailings and also avoid logo-based signatures that add weight to the mail and make it more polluting.
  • Bookmark your favorite sites it will allow you to reduce your search engine searches as much as possible by typing the URL directly into the search bar.
  • Reduce the number of tabs and programs open simultaneously
    Websites refresh their pages several times a day, which generates unnecessary energy expenditure.
  • Opt for eco-responsible search engines: With Ecosia, your research contributes to reforestation.
  • Uninstall unused applications on your phones
  • Reduce your use of clouds by doing backups of your files and photos to external drives. Otherwise, use WeTransfer or equivalents such as Transfernow to send a document, they will self-destruct after a few days.
  • Make moderate use of downloading and streaming especially video streaming.


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