How many trees does it take to power the internet?

You may already know that airplanes, fast fashion and factory farming are harmful to the environment, but have you ever considered the carbon footprint of watching videos or sending emails? Digital technologies and the systems that support them account for 3.7% of the world's global carbon emissions and this is set to rise to 8% by 2025. That's currently more than the civil airline industry, and soon it's predicted to surpass the automobile industry, too.

Digital technologies are often thought to curb our carbon emissions through advances such as electric cars or e-readers. We may think our digital activities take place up in the cloud, but how often do we look around to examine their real world impact?

As pressure mounts against technology companies to take more responsibility, what can you do to reduce your digital footprint? In this Data Detox you'll learn some tips to make your digital life more eco-friendly, from switching up your online activities to recycling an old smartphone.

Let's get started!

Five steps to reduce your digital footprint

1. Seeing is believing

The first step is about making the invisible visible. The more technology develops, the less we notice it: it's a slim smartphone in our pocket, a smart toothbrush in the bathroom or a blinking light from a wireless router. We tune into our technology to make our lives easier and more efficient, but as we become more connected, we may lose sight of what's really going on behind our screens.

So how do you see through the technology smog? Even though carbon emissions from electricity can vary a lot, there's still some things you can do. First, try out some visual cues to remind yourself about the energy industry that's powering your screen.

For browsing, download an extension called Carbonanalyser, which shows you the carbon footprint caused by the various websites you visit. Once you're aware of the website emissions, you can make the choice to visit more energy conscious sites.

Many tech companies such as Google are now 'carbon neutral', which means that they offset their carbon emissions. However, they are still making those emissions in the first place. Why not try out some environmentally conscious tools such as Posteo, an alternative to Gmail, which is not only privacy-centred, but also boasts using 100% green energy.

Does your tech blend in to your home? Use brightly coloured sticky notes on data hungry objects such as the smart TV or the wireless router to remind yourself of just how much energy is being used to power it.

Did you know? Loading the average website uses up the equivalent amount of energy as boiling a kettle for a cup of tea.

2. Stream wisely

Smartphones in themselves are not big energy drainers, but data traffic leaves the biggest carbon footprint. The flow, storage and consumption of data is responsible for more than half of digital technology's global environmental impact, and this figure is increasing by 25% each year.

Over half of data emissions come from streaming online videos, especially high-resolution videos and on-demand streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. Together, internet video and online gaming are projected to account for 87% of consumer internet traffic in 2022. So what can you do?

Stream videos in lower resolution. On YouTube and Amazon Prime, you can change this setting easily by clicking on the Settings cog next to the video. On Netflix, it's a bit trickier to find:

  • Click on your account icon (top right) →
  • Click on your account under 'Profile & Parental Controls' →
  • Playback settings →
  • and change the resolution under 'Data Usage per Screen'

Did you know? About 70% of the world's online traffic is reckoned to pass through Loudoun County in the United States, where the world's biggest concentration of data centres (the buildings that house computer servers that store, process and distribute internet traffic) is located. They currently occupy 18 million square feet, with millions more being planned or developed. That's roughly the size of 380 football pitches.

3. Reuse and recycle

You've learned about how to reduce your data footprint, now it's time to turn to your hardware -- the mercury, lead, copper and lithium materials that make up your devices. Despite people holding onto their gadgets for longer than they did in 2016, electronic waste is still a huge problem, with only 17.4% of global electronic waste being recycled and the rest ending up in landfills, being incinerated, or ending up in countries such as China, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Ghana where labour costs are lower.

So how can you give your devices a healthy afterlife? A device that functions can be resold and reused, and a device that does not function is full of valuable parts that can be sold. Here are some tips:

Companies have an environmental obligation to create recycling or buyback schemes for used products and devices. You can find a list of some buyback schemes on this page. If you can't find your manufacturer on that list, check their website or send them an email asking them how you can manage, reuse and safely dispose of the products they make.

Give a device a new lease of life. Second-hand electronics are sometimes sold new or as good as new, and may even be sold for a significant cost markdown. Explore options on sites such as Backmarket or go directly to your preferred manufacturer at Apple, Samsung, or Google Android.

Want to find another use for your old device? Get creative and up-cycle your old phones, laptops and cameras by reusing parts. This Wired article has lots of ideas. Alternatively, donate your phone to communities in need.

4. Take care

People get new devices for all sorts of reasons - because their network company offers them an early upgrade plan, because they received it as a present, because they just can't resist a new gadget. But how often do we stop to ask ourselves if we actually need them? The human labour that goes into producing new devices, such as an Amazon echo, is often far greater and more widespread than we think.

Taking care of your devices is a simple and sustainable way to reduce your carbon footprint and what better way to avoid contributing to electronic waste than to look after your device whilst you've still got it? According to the chief executive of a company dedicated to helping people repair their own devices, there are critical features to stay on top of - data storage and battery capacity, here's how:

To free up storage space on your phone, one of the easiest things you can do is offload some of your photos and videos onto an external memory card or hard drive in your laptop or SD card in your phone. If you've done that and you're still low on storage, try deleting apps that you rarely use.

Smartphone, tablet and laptop batteries can become sluggish, but that doesn't mean that your device is on its last legs, it may just need replacing. First test your battery health - for Apple or Android - and then learn what you can do to repair or replace it.

Prone to dropping your phone? Get a good screen protector and a heavy duty case to avoid wear and tear.

Did you know? A new European Union legislation called the 'Right to Repair' means that technology and appliance manufacturers are legally obligated to make their products easier to repair and reuse with the aim of drastically reducing electronic waste and increasing sustainability.

5. Spread the word

Now that you've thought about your own digital footprint, how can you get your friends and family to do the same? There is a growing awareness around what the tech industry, governments and consumers can do to prevent the growth of digital technologies from harming our environment. Get involved and share:

Did you know? Every year, there is a worldwide event called Earth Hour when everyone on earth is invited to switch off their electricity at a unified time, in order to spread awareness of environmental issues as well as make a small dent in our carbon footprints. Check out their official website for the next date.

If you like it, give yourself a personal Earth Hour once a week or once a day. Not only will it help reduce your carbon footprint, it will also save you some money.

Do you already detox your data? Getting into the Data Detox mindset is a sustainable way of controlling your data and also your digital footprint. Try out our self learning guides and articles to help you get started.

It may seem overwhelming to think of this planetary scale issue in relation to your small smartphone or laptop, but remember that if enough of us commit to taking small steps towards reducing our digital footprint, we can make a big difference.

This article was updated on 26th January 2021 with a new source in the 'Stream Wisely' section to reflect more recent research. It was also updated on 28th January 2021 with an additional sentence and source in the 'Seeing is Believing' section to inform readers that Co2 emissions from electricity can vary greatly.

Last updated on: 4/8/2021