Hold on to your devices for as long as possible. It’s the single most important thing you can do to reduce digital waste. Up to 80% of CO2 and other pollution is caused during the manufacture of a digital device because such devices are both resource intensive from a materials perspective and energy intensive from a manufacturing perspective.
16 out of 17 of rare earth materials can be found in a typical smartphone. Many of these materials are found in wilderness areas and mining them puts an increasing number of our rarest and most beautiful of species at risk.
Making one 150-gram smartphone can cause 60 kg of CO2, and use up some 13,000 liters of water and almost 7 kg of mined ore, not to mention the plastic and other materials required. If you keep your smartphone for five years instead of two years, you can halve its CO2 and water impact.
Extending the lifespan of smartphones and other electronics by just one year would save the EU as much carbon emissions as taking 2 million cars off the roads annually.
A conflict mineral called coltan is found in many phones. It is mined in the rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the place that the lowland gorillas call home. The mining stresses the habitat and stresses the gorilla population. Our modern lifestyles are consuming life on earth.
The mining process for many of the materials in our fantastically modern digital devices is often primitive and brutal. Common are slave labor, child labor, poor wages, poor safety practices, and little regard for the natural environment. But we don’t see this because we outsource our pollution and exploitative practices so that they are borne by the poor and struggling in this world.
Don’t leave your old digital devices lying around. Every year we create over 50 million tons of e-waste. That’s the equivalent of dumping 1,000 laptops every second. Yes, every SECOND. Less than 20% of e-waste is recycled and a lot of the so-called “recycling” is done by exporting it to poor countries where children burn electronics in open pits, damaging their health and polluting the soil and water.
E-waste makes up only 2% of the landfills by mass but creates 70% of the hazardous waste emissions. In the UK alone, almost 20,000 tons of batteries are dumped in landfills every year. Batteries are the most terrible of waste products. The metal exterior will decompose after about 100 years, but the heavy metals inside will never decompose and will poison the environment forever. Always, always properly recycle your batteries.
Every year, almost $60 billion worth of iron, copper, gold and other precious materials are dumped as e-waste. There is about 100 times more gold in a typical ton of e-waste than there is in a ton of gold ore. Urban mining. Circular economy. We are consuming the earth for lazy convenience and creating a global toxic dump that is destroying life on the planet.
We must reuse, repair, bring materials back into a continuous circular economy. Make sure you buy stuff that is repairable, whose materials are reusable. Think long term.
“Reusing a computer is up to 20 times more energy efficient than recycling it,” explains Thibaud Hug de Larauze, CEO and co-founder of Back Market. Getting your old device back onto the market as quickly as possible is essential because of the very short product lifecycles. If you wait six months, that phone could be much less valuable to repair and sell on, so once you’ve finished with it, get it working for somebody else.
Always try and use the device that consumes the least amount of energy. Wattage tells you how much energy a device consumes. For example:
What does that mean from a CO2 pollution perspective?
As a general rule, devices that also depend on batteries tend to be more energy efficient because of the need to conserve battery life. Screens are pretty intense energy consumers. The larger the screen and the higher resolution it is, the more energy it is likely to be consuming. An 80-inch 8K TV can consume 200 watts per hour of use, for example.
If you’re transferring particularly large quantities of data, a wire is much more energy efficient, and thus less polluting, than Wi-Fi and certainly much, much less polluting than using 3G, 4G or 5G.
Transferring data using a cable is more secure, more reliable and uses half the energy of using Wi-Fi. Transferring data using a fiber cable versus transferring the same data using a 3G connection has been found to be 45 times more energy efficient and thus 45 times less polluting. Estimates are that 5G will be even more energy intensive than 3G or 4G.
While always protecting your eyes, try and dim the screen as much as possible, as screens are significant consumers of energy and thus producers of CO2.
Use dark mode if you’ve got an OLED screen. Premium phones tend to use OLED technology, but most cheaper phones, laptops, desktops and monitors use LCD. Using dark mode with an OLED screen will reduce energy consumption, but dark mode for an LCD screen will have no energy reduction effect.
The screen is a major source of energy consumption, so turning it off as quickly as possible after you’ve stopped using a device is a good idea.
According to our calculations, screens up to 50 inches in size consume an average of 1.2 watts per inch. So, a 30-inch screen would consume about 36 watts of electricity per hour of use. Screens above 50 inches tend to use newer, more energy-intense technology, such as 4K or 8K. Such screens consume an average of 2.6 watts per inch—more than twice what smaller screens consume. Thus, an 80-inch 8K TV could consume over 200 watts per hour. So, watching such a TV for an hour is like using a desktop computer for an hour.
Put that device to sleep because devices that are on but not being used can consume up to 50% of the energy they consume when they are being used. It’s been estimated that 75% of the electricity consumption of digital devices occurs when they are inactive.
“An idle computer, even one at zero percent utilization, still draws electricity,” according to the Principles of Green Software Engineering. “At 0% utilization the computer still draws 100W, at 50% utilization it draws 180W and at 100% utilization it draws 200W.”
Putting a device to sleep or into hibernation still has energy consequences.
Turning off / shutting down your computer is good for the planet and good for you. An analysis by Tufts University stated that, “If each household in the metro Boston area turned off their computer just one additional hour per day, we could save $3.2 million in electricity costs and prevent 19,000 tons of CO2 from heating the atmosphere."
Also, shutting down your device (particularly your computer) is good for it.
In the US, it’s estimated that devices that are on but not being used—vampire power—can account for up to 20% of a typical electricity bill. According to a 2015 study by the NRDC, energy use by inactive devices costs “$19 billion a year—about $165 per US household on average—and approximately 50 large (500-megawatt) power plants’ worth of electricity.”
It’s likely that everything that is plugged in is drawing some energy. Certainly, large devices that are “asleep” are drawing several watts. Even our phone charger uses some energy when it’s plugged in and not being used.
A US study found that the average US house has 65—yes, 65—devices permanently plugged into electrical outlets. It’s a lot of hassle to turn off or unplug 65 devices, so one approach is to use power racks / strips to plug your devices into. That way, you only need to switch off the power rack.
The less your phone is communicating, the less energy it’s using. Lots of apps are constantly in the background communicating back to their developer and also sending you a variety of notifications. Each notification requires some energy, so the fewer notifications the better, and it’s also much better for your mental wellbeing.
Know the worst offenders. Some apps (such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Google Maps, etc.) are particularly bad at draining your battery, so keep an eye on them.
The fewer apps you have, the less energy you will consume. Some apps are particularly heavy polluters. According to an article in Komando, the five apps that really drain your battery are:
95% of apps get little or no use a couple of months after they’ve been installed. So, make sure you don’t carry lots of deadweight on your phone that is draining your battery, either through updates or the app communicating back to its base.
Keep your battery above 50% and ideally in the 50% to 80% range. Try and avoid letting it drain down into the red zone. A report in New York Magazine stated that, “When you consistently burn through 100 percent of your battery’s power, you’ll start to see your battery lose its ability to hold a charge after 300 to 500 cycles. But! If you use up only 50 percent of your battery before plugging it back into a charge, you can go 1,200 to 1,500 cycles before your battery starts to go into decline.”
An article in Wired stated, “Keeping your phone between 50 percent and 80 percent seems to be the sweet spot. And whenever possible, try not to let it dip below 20 percent.”
Shorter charges are better. “The chemical reactions inside lithium-ion batteries are more comfortable with shorter charges and discharges, rather than being drained all the way down and then topped all the way up,” Wired states.
According to Battery University, “A lithium-ion battery doesn’t like to be fully charged. And it doesn’t like to be fully charged and warm. Combination of full charge and warm actually causes more stress than usage. If you’re in a car in summer, don’t put it on the dashboard. Put it on floor.”
It’s better not to charge your phone overnight as it doesn’t particularly like a 100% charge. And sleeping with as little electronics close to you as possible is a good thing. Battery University recommends that batteries prefer a charge range between 50% and 80%.
“If you leave the smartphone plugged in overnight, it is going to use a bit of energy, constantly trickling new juice to the battery every time it falls to 99%. That is eating into your phone's lifespan,” PC Magazine states.
Use a wire to charge your phone. It will use about 50% less energy than using a wireless charger. “Charging the phone from completely dead to 100% using a cable took an average of 14.26 watt-hours (Wh),” Eric Ravenscraft writes. “Using a wireless charger took, on average, 21.01 Wh. That comes out to slightly more than 47% more energy for the convenience of not plugging in a cable. In other words, the phone had to work harder, generate more heat, and suck up more energy when wirelessly charging to fill the same size battery.”
The heavier digital is, the more pollution it creates. Imagine if you wanted to communicate to someone: “Thank you for your message.” Let’s assume that sending this message by SMS creates 1 unit of CO2:
So, choosing high-definition video to say “Thank you for your message” creates 82,000 times more pollution than sending the thank-you by SMS. Think before you send. What’s the weight of your message? Or do you even need to send it in the first place!?
Remember that old analog, ancient phone that lasted forever?
People are drowning in emails and other forms of communication, so the fewer and more concise emails you can send the better. Every day, there are about 300 billion emails being sent on a global basis.
According to our calculations, to write a three-minute email on a smartphone creates about 1 gram of CO2. If you write the same email on a 15-inch laptop, that could create 5 grams. Writing that email on a desktop could create more than 10 grams. And that’s just writing the email. We still have to add the CO2 caused by sending the email, storing it, and by people reading it.
Often, organizations don’t pay nearly enough attention to the soft skills that people need to use technology well. Professional communication skills take time, training and effort to acquire.
Don’t add to the data dump. We have produced more data in the last two years than in all of previous history. We are now in the era of the zettabyte. If you were to print out a zettabyte of data on paper, it would require cutting down 20 trillion trees, which would be difficult because there are only about 3.5 trillion trees left on the planet. By 2030, we should be approaching 2,000 zettabytes of data. Funny thing is, 90% of this data is crap. It’s never used three months after it’s created.
Being professional about minimizing the creation of documents, content and data is not an easy task. It requires skill, dedication, experience and training.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, a typical scientific paper had one author per published paper. By 2010, it was an average of five authors per paper. Not just that. "Researchers who work in more than one country have 40% higher average citation rates, while internationally collaborative papers have greater impact than domestic papers," the World Economic Forum wrote. In a complex world it makes sense to collaborate.
Collaboration is hard. It’s messy. It’s often very slow at the beginning. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for training and support in order to be a more effective collaborator. In analyzing large data environments over the years, we have found that wherever there are lots of silos there is lots of duplication and unnecessary data production. Wherever, in particular, there is lots of cross-discipline, multi-unit / department collaboration, we get less data and this data is of a much higher quality. In general, the more collaborative the organization, the better quality data it produces, and the less waste it’s creating.
90% of great collaboration is people skills, 10% is technology. And yet most organizations seem to think that it’s enough to buy the “right” technology and then everyone will magically start collaborating effectively. That won’t happen without the right skillset, culture and work practices.
It’s good for your health and good for the health of the planet to regularly archive old content and delete the unnecessary and out of date. Those who never delete or archive are hoarders and hoarding is unhealthy, unproductive and bad for the planet.
Archiving is something you should consider for the older content that you don’t want to delete but rarely use. Archival systems are much more energy efficient and thus create a lot less pollution. According to our analysis, depending on the type of archival solution you choose, it can create 150-300 less pollution than using a typical Cloud storage solution such as Dropbox. Of course, by far the most energy-efficient way to store things is on your own hard drive or on a portable drive. But learn to let go. We store far too much useless crap. Delete. Delete. Delete.
It’s hard to be exact but the CO2 costs for storing 1 gigabyte of data for a year in a service from Microsoft, Google or Dropbox can be 10-20 grams. Not much. We are now producing zettabytes of data every year. A zettabyte is 1,000,000,000,000 gigabytes. Storing a zettabyte of data for a year can create between 10 and 20 million tons of CO2.
If you want your data and content to get found, you must have good metadata. “I love metadata” is not a good chat-up line, unfortunately. Metadata is boring. It’s what happens after the “creative” surge. It’s about organizing, structuring, classifying.
Most people see having to add metadata to their work as a type of cruel and unusual punishment. Don’t be one of them. Being good at metadata is one of the most essential and neglected skills of this or any other age. Without high-quality metadata, the usefulness of your data greatly declines. It’s less findable. It’s less useful. Talk to anyone in ecommerce about metadata. They will tell you how absolutely critical it is. In a digital world, poor metadata means your data is essentially invisible.
“Oh, we don’t need metadata, we don’t need to classify or organize because we’ve got Google.” Such a lame and fallacious statement. Do you think that the website that is first in Google organic results got there without having good metadata? No chance. No remote chance. Those who care about being found in Google, or in any other search engine, are absolutely relentlessly focused on metadata.
Metadata is part of the information architecture discipline, which is all about making information findable, navigable, understandable. As the quantity of data increases, the need for information architecture increases. Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that AI or other fancy technology tools will do the heavy lifting work of properly organizing information.
Images, and in particular videos, are very heavy, and thus create lots more pollution than text. It’s estimated that 80% of Internet traffic is now video. Images, though, take up lots of space as well. On a typical webpage, it’s estimated that they can account for about 20% of the total weight, and on certain websites much, much more.
A not untypical website we examined had a homepage weight of 15.2 MB. With proper design, the page should have been less than 200 KB; 76 times lighter. Images made up 14.4 MB of the total weight; 95%! One of the images was 8.3 MB. This mega-polluting image had no value other than to “look good”. It didn’t explain anything. It didn’t illuminate anything. It was just a fancy stock image that the organization hoped would impress, look cool, enhance the brand. Such waste.
There’s rarely a reason to have an image greater than 100 KB on a website, and most images can look great at 20-40 KB. It just requires effort to properly optimize.
Audio creates 90% less pollution than video. A one-hour audio call using Skype or Zoom is about 27 MB, whereas the same call using standard video is about 270 MB.
The most energy-efficient form of digital communication of all is SMS. Let’s say that you send a message saying “I’ll meet you at four” by SMS, and it creates 1 unit of CO2.” Let’s assume that sending this message by SMS creates 1 unit of CO2:
Lots of video-based meetings have also been found to be stressful. A Stanford University study of video chats found that:
There are over 300 billion emails sent every day and who knows how many online meetings there are. It’s no surprise that many people feel stressed out because of the sheer volume of online communication happening.
It’s okay to feel stressed by communication overload. "Video chats mean we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language; paying more attention to these, consumes a lot of energy," an article from the BBC stated.
If it’s difficult to find the right people to collaborate with that is a major issue, because the more complex the world becomes, the more we need to collaborate. Cross-functional, multi-disciplinary collaboration has been shown to deliver better science, better results, better solutions.
You are far from alone if you’re having problems finding the information you need on your organization’s intranet and internal systems. The organization of information has been greatly neglected, so it is no surprise that one of the most common complaints is that people find it difficult to locate important information on internal systems.
Many intranets are no more than disorganized digital junkyards full of stale and outdated content. This is because of technology-first solutions, a lack of purpose and objectives, and an almost total lack of interest from senior management. It all reflects a world where data and information are treated as a crude commodity rather than a valuable asset.
Lack of proper management of internal information is a major scourge. A great many organizations have a launch and leave culture. Technology is bought but little attention is given to the ongoing maintenance of the information. This is a big problem and reduces trust and productivity.
Surveys have indicated that data scientists can spend up to 80% of their time cleaning and structuring data. And they’re usually dealing with semi-structured data to begin with. So much data that exists within organizations is in unstructured form. After it’s published, it’s hardly ever looked after. It just grows and grows into intranet junkyards and toxic data lakes.
In our experience of 25 years working on intranets, we have found that anywhere from 80% to 90% of the information on a mature intranet can be either out of date, duplicative or of very low value. It’s a struggle to find the right information.
Of course, all of this junk data creates CO2 when it’s stored.
We often live in a Cult of Volume when it comes to information and content. Technology is great for data and information quantity, but it takes quality people to create quality content. Too often the ‘soft’ skills of editing and good writing are neglected, and the results are poor quality, verbose and overly long content that is difficult to read, understand and act upon.
We once did work for a bank intranet where they had a particular type of content called “circulars”. These circulars were full of unnecessary context and verbosity. Average reading time was three minutes. By shortening and simplifying the content, we were able to reduce reading time to 55 seconds. And you know what? When we tested staff on their understanding of the essential information contained in the circulars, those who had read the shorter, clearer content got better scores.
When you’re writing for digital you need to be even more precise and clear than for print, because on digital devices people tend to read faster. They scan read, hunting for the most essential information that they need to know. If they’re not getting the information they need in the first three-to-four words, they’ll scan on to the next sentence or paragraph.
The culture of digital is one of impermanence, convenience and transience. Nothing lasts. No digital design matters because we know that everything we design will be “redesigned” in a couple of years. No decision we make matters much because we can change everything whenever we want. This is a really wasteful culture and mindset.
Planned obsolescence is the standard industry practice: to design products deliberately to fail. This can be done in a myriad of subtle and clever ways, leaving no obvious fingerprints of guilt. Parts can be designed in a way that limits their life. Spare parts become unavailable. Manufacturers can refuse to release schematics. Special screws, welds or glues can be used that make repair almost impossible. Software updates can over time degrade the functionality of a device until at some point it becomes unusable.
The average life of a smartphone is estimated to be about 2.5 years. For a laptop, the UK Green Alliance estimated the average life to be 4.5 years. How long should you keep a laptop to properly account for the 300 kg of CO2 it created during manufacture? 20 years, according to the Green Alliance. We are consuming the earth’s resource at phenomenal rates because practically everything is now designed for short-term greed. We cannot possibly solve the climate crisis if we don’t start designing things to last. And that means everything: from our physical products, to our software, to our content.
The more your stuff is reused, the more sustainable your work becomes because you are helping reduce the energy and waste associated with creation. Digital has resulted in an absolute explosion of creation and production. According to research we’ve done, 50% of the roughly 13 trillion photos taken since 1900 were taken in the last five years. This relentless explosion in creation is putting huge stress on the earth’s resources. Digital is the secret accelerator of the climate crisis.
Concepts such as renewable energy help, but don’t address the core challenge. We don’t have an energy production problem. We have an energy consumption problem. We create, consume and waste far too much. To address these existential challenges, new ideas are emerging such as degrowth and circular economy.
Degrowth is a philosophy of living well within much more constrained production and consumption environments. It points to the fact that true happiness, while requiring a certain minimal level of material comforts, does not require the wild growth engines that are destroying the conditions for life on the planet.
A defining characteristic of this ‘modern’ age is the explosion of toxic waste, from plastic to electronic waste. (We are dumping the equivalent of 1,000 laptops every second.) A circular economy is all about letting nothing go to waste. In a circular economy, we constantly reuse and turn the old into the new.
Reusing and repairing and holding onto things as long as possible are essential if we are to truly address the climate emergency. We must break away from the environmentally destructive culture of relentless creating and consuming. It’s great for the planet if you reuse. We must embrace circular economy thinking, and that means reusing as much as possible.
Too many organizations are stuck in a ‘Cult of Volume’ metrics culture. We cannot achieve true sustainability if we encourage endless production, if we constantly reward people based on what they have created.
We need a culture that rewards usefulness, that judges people not on the thing they produce but rather on the usefulness of that thing. We must measure ourselves based on outcomes, not output. Was the content or code we created helpful? Did it help other people do something useful?
An outcome-based metrics model is more sustainable, with less waste. An output-based model is production and growth driven and riven with waste.
I wrote a book about these ideas called Top Tasks. It’s about prioritizing the tasks that are most important and measuring how able people are to complete those tasks. It’s about measuring success based on whether people are successful at completing their top tasks, and how long it takes them. The objective is to help people complete their top tasks in the fastest possible time.
The launch and leave organizational culture is the one that creates the most waste. It’s obsessed with projects, and producing stuff, and getting stuff “delivered”. Much better to focus on quality and continuous improvement through maintenance, updating, testing and refinement.
We produce too much stuff.