It’s a routine that has become all too familiar. Coffee dates over zoom calls, business conducted through emails and movies streamed straight to your couch. While long commutes and disposable coffee cups are a thing of the past, at least for now, the environmental impact of your digital footprint is ramping up.
When you think about eco-friendly practices, the internet might not be the first thing that comes to mind. After all, the web is something that just… exists. Being able to shop international brands, connect with friends across the globe and find out (literally) anything in a matter of seconds is something we take for granted. But have you ever asked yourself how it is all generated?
The ecological impact of the web
Yes, your browsing habits impact the environment. A BBC study reported that in early 2020, our gadgets, the internet and the systems supporting them accounted for 3.7 per cent of CO2 emissions, a number that increased throughout the year.
So how does something that is, for the most part, online emit carbon emissions? The obvious answer is the waste generated by the manufacturing of our phones and computer hardware. And while we are quick to consume the latest tech, we don’t dispose of our gadgets in an eco-friendly way. Old devices are often not recycled, polluting the landfill they end up in with toxic materials.
Our digital habits impact our soil, but not only that. Another less-known source of emissions is the data we accumulate from accessing the internet’s content. Google searches, emails and app downloads all use information that is transferred and stored in “the cloud”. While we tend to perceive it as unseen energy, the cloud’s data is very tangible. Stored in computer-filled warehouses around the world, data requires electricity. A lot of it. Studies show that data centres use two per cent of the world’s energy, most of it powered by coal and emitting CO2. While a handful of data centres aim to curb their impact with renewable energy, they alone cannot make a difference.
Simple ways to change your web habits
Thankfully, reducing your digital impact might be easier than you think. You don’t need to quit Instagram to emit less CO2, but approaching your web habits mindfully can make a difference.
Control what reaches you
The endless social media, text and email notifications you receive are not only mentally draining, they also consume a lot of data. While some of that communication is important, most of your inbox is not. Reports show that we receive an average of 120 emails per day, including junk, each emitting over 0.3g of CO2. While you might read about five per cent of those emails, that’s more than 44,000 unread emails, emitting 13kg of CO2 per year.
The good news is you have total control over what hits your inbox. Gwyneth Paltrow might want to sage your inbox with her Goop newsletter, but instead of signing up to yet another mailing list, get Marie Kondo on your inbox and unsubscribe to anything that doesn’t bring you joy.
Notifications and emails are not worth the headaches and the data they generate. Be selective with what reaches you. Removing spam, promotions and anything that doesn’t add value will shrink your digital footprint and nurture your nervous system. If you’re a serial subscriber or lack the patience (it’s no quick task), there are online services that can bulk-unsubscribe you.
Regaining digital control is great, but there is more you can do. We are all guilty of leaving our laptop plugged in and our phone charging overnight. This habit is not only draining our tech’s longevity, it consumes as much energy as leaving a light on. In reality, your phone needs just four hours to fully charge, while your laptop only needs three. Consider energising your devices in the four-hour window between your morning meetings and lunch break.
Consider the search engine you use to search for things online. A search engine like Ecosia makes it easy to get green with your digital habits. Through its conscious algorithm, Ecosia plants trees for each of your searches with the aim to offset digital CO2 and reduce data transfer, as well as highlighting the most local and eco-friendly results.
The internet might be vast and complex, but like many eco-habits, reducing your impact is simply about cutting out the surplus, consuming less and making mindful choices.
Laura Alario is a French-born writer based in Sydney. She is passionate about sparking conversation around women’s health, wellness trends and all things sustainability. Find her at @lauraa.alario