Have you ever stopped to think about the impact on the planet caused by the simple act of browsing the internet?
The internet is so easily accessible to most of us that we hop on and off it multiple times a day, without a second thought. On average, we each spend 6 hours and 42 minutes online each day.1
With so much of the online world being ‘on the cloud’, it’s easy to detach from the reality. That the internet is a network of billions of computers, all of which take resources to manufacture and energy to run.
So what impact does the internet have on the planet?
With 4.39 billion internet users around the world,2 the world wide web’s carbon footprint is estimated to be larger than that of air travel.3
There are two main contributors to the internet’s environmental impact:
- the resources needed to manufacture computers, servers and other hardware
- powering and cooling equipment
It’s not just about your computer. It’s the billions of computers in data centres around the world powering the websites you visit. From search engines to social media and video streaming sites, every website you access has a carbon footprint.
So what can we each do to reduce the impact that this all has on the planet? Here are 5 suggestions for you to consider:
1. Spend less time online
It seems the obvious solution but it’s easier said than done, right? We rely on the internet for so many things, from our work to communicating with loved ones. But, if you’re really honest with yourself, how much time do you spend on the internet for non-productive reasons (e.g. browsing social media)?
Reducing the amount of time you spend actively online will reduce the amount of energy you use to power your device. It will also mean less energy is used at the back end (to power and cool the servers hosting the websites you visit).
You might think the amount of energy you could save by reducing your usage is negligible. However, as with many things, if everyone does a little it can add up to a big difference in our impact on the planet.
It can also be beneficial for your health
The effect that screen time in the evening has on sleep is well documented. It’s why phone/tablet manufacturers have added the ability to change the colour of light emitted from devices (a warmer light has less of an effect than blue light). Having no screen time for at least 2 hours before bed is recommended if you want to wake up feeling more refreshed.4
Cutting down your screen time doesn’t have to be limited to the evening. I’ve been reducing the time I spend on social media throughout the day, with the help of in-app notifications. Most smartphones have screen time settings that can help you to manage it too.
These notifications aren’t foolproof. I still find myself reaching for my phone out of habit. To combat this, I now leave my phone upstairs on charge a few times a day (when I’m at home). That way it’s not within reach or visible. Out of sight out of mind – it works (for me anyway).
Side note: Smart phones and similar devices continue to draw some power from the mains even when fully charged.5 Charging your phone during the day (and unplugging it once fully charged), rather than leaving it plugged in all night, will save energy. A small amount of energy but enough to warrant changing your habits.
2. Plant trees while you search
Google has 92.92% of the market share when it comes to searching the internet.6 It’s little wonder then that the word is now a verb in the Oxford English Dictionary. There is, however, a greener option…
I discovered Ecosia about a year-and-a-half ago and now use it for most of my internet searches. Not all my searches, as it doesn’t have all the functionality that Google does (yet), such as local business listings. However, in the last few months Ecosia has introduced the measurement conversion and currency conversion functionality, for which I’d still been relying on Google. So it might just be a matter of time before they offer something like Google’s local business search results too.
What makes them the greener option?
The search results and search ads on Ecosia are powered by Bing – part of Microsoft, who have committed to making their operations carbon-neutral (as have Google). So far, no better than Google – so how are they greener?
Ecosia go even further and claim to be carbon-negative. They say: “By planting trees and offsetting its energy use with renewables, each search actually removes 1 kg of CO₂ from the air”.
They have planted over 58 million trees – and counting. Those trees have absorbed over 2.5 million tonnes of CO₂ from our atmosphere.7 If all of us made Ecosia our default search engine, imagine what could be achieved.
By the way, this is not an ad for Ecosia. I’m not affiliated with them in anyway, I’m just a fan of what they’re doing. For the purposes of impartiality, I searched for other green search engines but all I’ve found that still works today is Blackle. It’s basically a stripped-down Google with a black screen to save energy (less light emitted from your device’s screen).
3. Buy second hand or refurbished equipment (and recycle your old devices)
Information and communications technology is a super-fast-paced industry, with more advanced products being released as quick as you can say “planned obsolescence”.
Smartphones and other devices regularly get discarded after only a couple of years. Often this is due to operating systems becoming non-upgradable after a certain point. Parts break or malfunction and can’t be easily fixed or replaced. Other times it’s simply down to the user wanting the newest, fastest smartphone with all the latest bells and whistles. I completely get the desire for speedy processors and high spec cameras. However, we need to be more conscious of how our spending decisions have an impact on the planet.
We can choose not to fuel the incessant demand for shiny new things that require more and more of the world finite resources.
My experience of going refurbished
I’ve tried to keep every phone I’ve owned for as long as possible. I upgraded to a newer model last year (going from a iPhone 5 to a 7) when my previous phone wouldn’t let me update the iOS. It started to seriously affect apps, connection with my macbook and general functionality.
I looked at second hand phones but I opted for a refurbished one from a well-known retailer. That way I’d still get a year’s warranty, just in case anything went wrong in that time, which it did (though I think I was pretty unlucky). There was an issue with the home button and the microphone, so I returned it to be fixed or replaced. They replaced it (presumably because they couldn’t fix it) but instead of giving me another refurbished handset, they sent me brand new one (groan). This is my only experience of buying refurbished tech. While it didn’t exactly go to plan, I’d definitely do it again.
I’m also considering getting a Fairphone when my iPhone is unusable, which it will inevitably become. The Fairphone is made from ethically sourced materials and designed to be easily repaired (even by the user) with replaceable modules. This means you don’t need to replace the whole handset when one part of it malfunctions or needs upgrading. They also offer refurbished phones. Even better!
Selling and recycling old equipment
As well as buying second-hand or refurbished equipment, you can make a difference by selling, donating or recycling old devices.
If you can’t trade it in at the shop when you get a replacement, there are various businesses who will buy your phone or other device from you (Envirofone, Fonebank and Cex to name a few). Some of these companies accept damaged equipment but the condition will affect how much you receive.
Even if you don’t get any money for your device, it’s better that it gets recycled than sitting in your junk drawer for years to come.
4. Declutter your cloud drive and your inbox
This might not seem like something that would make much difference but if everyone clears up some space on their cloud server or email server, it all adds up. Ultimately, if enough space is cleared, then fewer servers will be needed. Fewer resources would then be needed to make the equipment and less energy needed to power them. In short, it means a reduced impact on the planet.
Besides the environmental benefits, taking this action could benefit your mental health. Decluttering is a big trend right now, as more and more people start to recognise the link between clutter and stress. The ‘clutter’ in question doesn’t just refer to physical things in the home. We also need to be more conscious of mental clutter.
One aspect of life that can add to our mental clutter is our online world. We can reduce stress by not letting our calendars, inboxes and desktops become too full. Deleting obsolete files and emails can be a therapeutic process and will make ongoing organisation easier.
I’m working on it
I’m normally quite good at organising my emails. Once I’ve read and actioned an email, I delete it or move it to a relevant folder if I need to keep it for future reference.
Keeping up with all the email newsletters I receive is another issue. I’m subscribed to quite a few but I rarely have time (or make time) to read them all. I often end up deleting them without having read them, which frustrates me. Time to get real – if I don’t read a newsletter for a few months running (most are monthly) then it’s time to unsubscribe.
My cloud drive is fairly well organised – partly because I’ve not been using it for long and partly because I’m in the habit of deleting files when I no longer need them. However, I find it more difficult doing this with photos. It’s always harder with sentimental things. A job for this weekend!
If your inbox and/or cloud drive need decluttering, it can seem a daunting task. Just think of the time it will save you going forward if it were well organised and contained less. Think of the piece-of-mind you’ll gain and the contribution you could make to reducing the internet’s impact on the planet.
5. Switch your business to cloud-based services
This only really applies if you’re a business owner or manager. If you have in-house servers, you might want to consider switching to a cloud service. Preferably through one of the more environmentally-friendly providers.
While cloud storage requires very large data centres, which require a huge amount of energy to power and cool the equipment, there are some major benefits to using the Cloud, especially for businesses.
It’s much more energy efficient than having in-house servers. The average in-house server utilisation rate is only 15%. Large-scale cloud providers have a utilisation rate of approximately 65%. This essentially allows companies to use fewer servers and, therefore, less energy.8
Cloud-based systems allow people to work remotely from anywhere. This results in less energy and fewer resources being used in the office. It also results in fewer emissions from commuting. Home-working has the potential to cut costs by £3 billion a year for UK employers and employees, as well as provide substantial carbon reductions (over 3 million tonnes a year) across the country.9
Choosing an eco-friendly provider
Most traditional data centres use air-cooling, which requires huge amounts of energy, often with a backup power supply that runs on diesel fuel. There are a number of newer data centres that use liquid and immersed cooling instead. This technique reduces power requirements by 44% when compared with a traditional data centre.10 That’s a pretty significant difference!
There are also some data centres that are powered by 100% renewable energy. I can’t recommend a particular provider but it’s definitely worth checking which cooling method is used and if they’re powered by green energy when choosing one.
Yes there’ll be a cost to switch over but there are long-term savings to be made. Plus, with the growing number of people who are becoming aware of environmental issues and are changing their behaviour accordingly, your business’ eco-credentials are more important than ever before.
Have you already done or are you planning on doing any of these? If not, could you pick one and start taking action today?
These are just 5 ideas. I’m sure there are many more ways to minimise the impact that your internet use has on the planet. If you have any, please share them with us in the comments.