22 December 2021

Digital technology and E-Waste


Digital technology currently emits 4% of the world’s greenhouse gases, and this figure is growing at 9% per year. At the current rate, its share will more than double by 2025.

This sector allows for multiple positive evolutions and improvements in our daily lives, but it is essential to consider its environmental impact. We talk about “dematerialization” and “cloud”, but digital technology, although it may seem invisible and virtual, is first and foremost material with a real physical reality.

  • If the Internet was a country, it would be the 3rd largest consumer of electricity in the world and it would have a carbon footprint 2 to 3 times larger than France
  • 32 kilos of materials are needed to manufacture a 2 grams electronic chip (not to mention water resources)
  • A computer requires 240kg of fossil fuel, 22kg of chemicals and 1.5 tons of water
  • The manufacture of a 47-inch television emits 479 kg of greenhouse gases and requires 26,000 liters of water
  • In 2019, there will be 34 billion digital devices for 4.1 billion users in the world
  • 15,000 km is the average distance of a digital data (email, web request, video…)
  • Sending an email with a document attached = leaving a light bulb on for 1 hour
  • Every minute spent on Instagram consumes about 175 Wh and emits about 90 g of CO2
Baotou mine, China’s largest rare earth mining site, called cancer town

No less than 70 different materials, including 50 metals (including rare metals) are needed to make a smartphone. Extraction from the earth’s crust and exploitation requires huge volumes of land and water and leads to the destruction of ecosystems.

The mining and metallurgical industries are among the most polluting human activities: destruction of natural sites, energy and water consumption, discharge of heavy and harmful metals into nature, use of harmful chemicals, polluted water etc… It therefore leads to the depletion of resources, not to mention human exploitation, child labour, health conditions, armed conflicts. (read human cost of our smartphones)

Most of the components come from China (and its electricity comes mainly from coal…) and their transport (usually by plane) adds to the problem.

These resources are not infinite and to satisfy the growing demand, we dig deeper and deeper (which requires more and more energy).

As we change our phones on average every 2 years, electronic waste is increasing and it is one of the most complicated to deal with. Most of the waste is not sorted and ends up in incinerators or landfills, polluting soils and rivers. The recycling rate is extremely low (about 15% of smartphones, for example) and is illegally sent to landfills in Africa or Asia. The pollution generated by our electrical and electronic waste is increasingly worrying. For example, one of the most polluted places in the world is an electronic waste dump in Ghana at Agbogbloshie, which piles up 40,000 tonnes of material from our developed countries.

Machines behind our devices: to extract rare metals and to install submarine cables

Although manufacturing has the greatest environmental impact, using our devices is not neutral. Our use requires resources and a high consumption of energy and 80% of the flow comes from online video.

Our use is not “dematerialised” but works solely with equipment (computers, cables, boxes, etc.) and with networks and infrastructures.

We often feel that all our connections are virtual, wireless, seamless. Our equipment doesn’t smell bad, doesn’t belch big black smoke, so we don’t feel that using it has an environmental cost, everything seems invisible. However, the reality is quite different, it is not “dematerialised” but all our connections work solely with devices and equipment and require a real network and infrastructures.

You probably heard of data centers: although the electricity used in these data centers is fortunately becoming increasingly carbon-free, they are very energy-intensive: data storage generates heat, which requires air-conditioning and therefore consumes a lot of water.

We also tend to immediately think of satellites in space, they are indeed becoming more and more numerous but play a fairly minor role in the transmission of internet data.

Most of the internet traffic is carried by submarine cables. Today, more than 1.2 million kilometres of cable cross the globe, or 32 times around the Earth. These cables are buried in the seabed by cable ships and subsea machines, they have a theoretical life span of 25 years but are sometimes replaced before this time when they are considered technologically obsolete and their capacity needs to be increased.

Submarine cable Network

As manufacturing represent more than ¾ of the environmental impact, acting on our equipment is the first important step.

  1. Reduce the number of our equipment, keep a critical mindset, and always question a purchase: are these devices or connected objects indispensable to my daily life?
  2. Extend the life of our equipment is one of the most effective actions: take care of it as much as possible: shells and protective glasses, and if possible repair them (tutorials fixit, or save.co). Maintain our devices (breakdown, antivirus, etc.) with software like ccleaner
  3. If our device really does not work anymore and cannot be repaired, it is imperative not to throw it in the bin but to recycle or send it to this platform for smartphone.
  4. For a (necessary) purchase, favour reconditioned or second-hand products (even if this should not be an excuse to change more often!), we can go for products with environmental labels (EPEAT and TCO Certified, Der Blaue Angel) like Fairphone
  5. Online video represents 80% of digital data flows and generates 306 million tons of CO2 per year worldwide: try to reduce online video consumption, use a lower resolution when watching videos, and disable automatic playback on social networks.
    Check out: The unsustainable use of online video
  6. Reduce the size of our TV screens: consumption increases with the square of the diagonal
  7. A whatsapp message consumes 4g and a text message 0.014g : for short text, why not go back to good old text message… (see internet habits not as clean as you think)
  8. Manage our mailbox better: delete mails (don’t archive them) and lighten our sending (prefer transfer platforms such as filevert to attachments)
  9. On our smartphones, we can deactivate unnecessary notifications and limit the addition of applications
  10. Switch off and unplug our devices when we are not using them (computer, printer, box: a box consumes as much energy as a refrigerator)
  11. When possible, prefer the Wi-Fi network than the 4G network (which is 20 times more impactful)
  12. Limit our use of search engines and try using direct website address (and choose a more responsible search engine like ecosia)
  13. Sort out what we store on the cloud (photos, videos, etc.): favouring local data storage is more eco-responsible
  14. It’s a well-known and true adage that we should avoid printing our emails. (even if time spent reading on screen will have a greater impact, so paper will remain the most suitable medium for prolonged reading)
  15. Carry out daily tasks without your smartphone: (use an alarm clock, a diary) and enjoy your activities without connected objects. Not to mention, be out in nature only with our smartphone at the bottom of the backpack in case of emergency.

We do not question the positive impacts of digital technology, which is an indispensable part of today’s world.  As an association, we do have a website, are on social networks, send newsletters and share blog posts like this one!

However, digital is neither renewable nor sustainable, and its share of GHG emissions is such that if we continue in the same increase, we will not be able to achieve the necessary reduction in our emissions to stay below +2°C.

We invite you to become aware of the issues at stake, of the materiality of digital technology which is often underestimated, to question your needs, your practices and to think about a more responsible use.


Climate Impact of Internet Navigation (download Carbonalyser)

Digital Sobriety

This video is bad for climate, thanks for watching

More useful resources from Montagne Verte: