The Hidden Face of Digital

Every day we send email, navigate the web and store our videos, photos or music in the Cloud. We often have the impression that the whole process is trivial and nearly free, but this is not at all the case.  So says L’Agence de l’Environnement et de la Maîtrise de l’Énergie (ADEME), an agency of the government of France which, promotes an environmental approach to the workplace and to daily living. In a recent Guide, La Face Cachée de Numérique, (The Hidden Face of Digital),  they describe the widespread environmental impacts of the growing number of digital devices (increasing energy consumption, use of primary minerals, pollution and waste production) and how to reduce them.

In the Guide, it is estimated that there are 2 billion smartphones, 1 billion computers, 5 to7 billion other connected devices and 45 billion servers worldwide and that 8.4 billion connected devices would be sold in the world in 2017, 31% more than in 2016. The forecast for 2020 is 50 billion connected devices. In one hour, there are 8 to 10 billion emails sent (not including spam) and 180 million Google searches and the average distance a piece of data travels is 15,000 km.

The manufacture of a computer requires 240 kg of fossil fuels, 22 kg of chemicals, 1.5 t of water and numerous precious (gold and platinum) or rare earth (tantalum, lanthanum, neodymium, yttrium) minerals as well as those which are dangerous for the environment (lead, bromine, arsenic, chlorine, mercury and cadmium). A desk top computer will consume between 120 and 250 kWh/year and a cell phone 2 to 7 kWh/year.

The Guide has a great deal of practical advice on how to reduce the environmental impact of your electronic habits, starting with carefully choosing what you buy. This includes looking for equipment that carries one of the environmental logos like Energy Star and buying a device that suits your needs and does not contain extra functions that you will never use.  Keeping your device longer and having it repaired rather than replacing it as soon as it breaks down is also better for the environment. They also suggest reducing your energy consumption by turning your computer off when you are done or putting it in sleep mode for short breaks.

Almost all parts of an electronic device can be recycled and reused so make sure you dispose of them in an appropriate manner. Don’t keep your old and unused smartphones or laptops stashed in your closet as they contain a wealth of raw materials. According to the Guide, there is 50 times more gold in a tonne of electronic cards than in a tonne of mineral! And some of these materials are toxic and need to be carefully treated.
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