The environmental impact of hoarding data

The Digital Cleanup Day initiative wants users to get into the habit of sorting and discarding unwanted data, while being mindful about “digital waste” they are producing. — Image by Freepik

Due to cloud services, people can store seemingly infinite amounts of data without worrying about using up physical space on their personal devices.

However, Estonia’s Let’s Do It Foundation wants users to think about the environmental impact of hoarding data.

Last month, it launched the Digital Cleanup Day initiative to get users into the habit of sorting and discarding unwanted data while being mindful of the “digital waste” they are producing.

According to the foundation, “This digital waste creates digital pollution that continues to consume energy even when we have forgotten it.

“Digital trash sits in the backups on servers that provide us with cloud service and continue consuming electricity.”

The International Energy Agency estimates that data centres and data transmission networks are responsible for nearly 1% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals listed reducing greenhouse gas emissions as part of a crucial measure to lessen the impact of climate change.

It raised concerns that droughts brought on by rising temperatures may displace 700 million people by 2030.

A 2020 report by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) called for the large-scale adoption of environmentally responsible online behaviour, which it said was vital for “combating climate change and promoting sustainability”.

Habits it recommends include deleting non-essential content on cloud services or when the data is no longer needed.

Users should also optimise their cloud storage by identifying and deleting duplicate content – most cloud services either offer tools for this or do it automatically.

On devices like the iPhone, the Photos app can be used to find duplicate images and videos.

Tapping on Albums and clicking on Duplicates under Utilities will show the similar files next to each other. This feature is available in iOS 16.

There is also an option to merge duplicates. According to Apple, “merging combines the highest quality version and all the relevant data across the duplicates, and this version will remain in the library”. The remaining duplicates will be put into the Recently Deleted album.

On Android, the Files By Google app has a Clean feature that will scan the phone and recommend content to delete, including large files, old screenshots and downloaded data.

Alternatively, users can archive information on external drives, which don’t run on electricity.

If deletion is not an option, the files can be compressed to save space. Popular tools on the market include WinZip and WinRAR, which allow files to be compressed, although they are better at shrinking the size of some files than others.

The files can also be password protected for additional security. Do note that the compression employed by these apps won’t result in a loss of quality for photos or videos.

Another aspect that users should consider is the carbon footprint of emails.

Statistics on The Carbon Literacy Project show that actions like sending a short email from the phone generate 0.2g of CO2, while taking 10 minutes to send out an email to 100 people is responsible for 26g of CO2.

According to the Let’s Do It Foundation, 281 billion emails are sent out each day, taking an average person three hours a day to refresh, read and reply to work messages.

The foundation felt that it was necessary to limit the ineffective practice of organising work through emails.

To avoid accumulating email messages, it’s best to unsubscribe from irrelevant mailing lists or mark unwanted emails as spam so they get deleted after a set period.

Let’s Do It also recommends that users clean up their Inbox by searching for common names or addresses to round up similar messages and delete them, while only keeping the latest.

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