World Wide Waste

Authors: Gerry McGovern

Publisher: Silver Beach

Publication Date: April, 2020


Digital is physical. Digital is not green. Digital costs the Earth. Every time I download an email I contribute to global warming. Every time I tweet, do a search, check a webpage, I create pollution. Digital is physical. Those data centers are not in the Cloud. They’re on land in massive physical buildings packed full of computers hungry for energy. It seems invisible. It seems cheap and free. It’s not. Digital costs the Earth. 

One of the most difficult challenges with digital is to truly grasp what it is, its form, its impact on the physical world. I want to help give you a feel for digital. I’m going to analyze how many trees would need to be planted to offset a particular digital activity. For example: 

  • 1.6 billion trees would have to be planted to offset the pollution caused by email spam.
  • 1.5 billion trees would need to be planted to deal with annual e-commerce returns in the US alone. 
  • 231 million trees would need to be planted to deal with the pollution caused as a result of the data US citizens consumed in 2019.
  • 16 million trees would need to be planted to offset the pollution caused by the estimated 1.9 trillion yearly searches on Google. 

We don’t have an energy production crisis. We do have an energy consumption crisis. We consume far too much of everything the Earth produces and in the last 40 years our appetites for everything have exploded, driven and enabled by advances in digital technology. Recycling and renewables are often a form of green washing for big corporations. To go 100% renewable would not be without its costs, as the machines that make wind and solar technology need to be manufactured, consuming energy, the batteries in our electric cars need precious raw materials. We consume too much energy, that’s the problem, and like our waistlines, these habits have gone out of control. 

Whether it is correlation or causation, we can map the explosive growth of digital over the last forty years with the explosive growth in resource depletion. Undoubtedly, massive wealth has been created for a tiny elite, with 26 people owning as much as the bottom 50% poorest, according to Oxfam. While poverty reduction showed promising signs in the early years of this century, as the Web matures, progress has stalled. “An estimated 820 million people did not have enough to eat in 2018,” according to the UN, “up from 811 million in the previous year, which is the third year of increase in a row.” 

Up to 90% of digital data is not used

Up to 90% of digital data is not used. We collect. We store. We create and then don’t use. Data is the atomic structure of digital. Words, music, images, films, videos, software. It all ends up as data. Most data is like single use, throwaway plastic. What sort of society accepts 90% waste? 

  • Around 90% of data is never accessed three months after it is first stored, according to Tech Target. 
  • 80% of all digital data is never accessed or used again after it is stored, according to a 2018 report by Active Archive Alliance.
  • Businesses typically only analyze around 10% of the data they collect, according to search technology specialist Lucidworks. 
  • 90% of unstructured data is never analyzed, according to IDC.
  • 90% of all sensor data collected from Internet of Things devices is never used, according to IBM.

We download the free app, try it maybe once, and then never again. Research by mobile intelligence firm, Quettra, found that the average app loses 77% of its users within the first three days after the install, 90% within the first 30 days, and 95% within the first 90. All that effort, expense and energy that went into creating things that nobody is using. The energy it cost to download for that one single use. But it’s ok because it was free. Free costs the Earth. Few business models are causing more long-term damage to our environment than the ‘free’ model because it is based on the twin evils of waste and advertising.

Look inside most organizations and you will see that they are monstrosities of digital waste. “My experience is that IT landscapes are 90% waste,” Wolfgang Goebl, founder of the Architectural Thinking Association told me. “What I’ve seen in many companies is that they could run the same business with 10% of IT applications and servers.” 

E-commerce packaging accounts for 30% of solid waste generated in the US, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. About 165 billion packages are shipped in the US each year. That’s a billion trees worth of cardboard, according to data from USPS, FedEx, and UPS analyzed by LimeLoop. If 20% of e-commerce purchases are returned, then there are 200 million trees being cut down every year in the US alone to deal with the passing whims of consumers.

Cheap storage combined with cheap processing power made the World Wide Web the World Wide Waste. The Web is an ocean full of crap. We live on the first page of search results, never venturing forth beyond the first few results, so we don’t see all the crap lurking underneath. More people have been on top of Mount Everest than have been to the 10th page of search results. Parents warn their children: “Don’t go beyond the first page of search results.” I searched for “climate change”. Google informed me that there were “about 931,000,000” results. That’s 931 million results! Who visits all these pages? A 2018 study by Ahrefs found that 91% of all pages they analyzed got zero traffic from Google. What’s the point? What-is-the-point?

It’s cheap to store so we store up the problem. When we save ourselves time in the present, the future pays. On the shallow surface, the cost of storing something digital is much less than the cost of editing it, cleaning it up, and getting rid of it after it is no longer useful. We keep making these false calculations of how much time we can save right this very moment if we store the stuff instead of spending time editing it, but we’re storing up problems for the future. We must start calculating the true cost of digital, and that means calculating the total costs of digital products and data over their entire lifetime. Storage is one element of data’s cost. When you’re looking through 10,000 photos for that one that really matters, those 9,999 other photos are costing you your time and energy and ability to focus. 

Designing a greener web: An interview with Gerry McGovern

Digital pollution: ‘We have a pandemic of data and 90% of it is crap’

Designing a greener web: An interview with Gerry McGovern

July 9, 2020: An excerpt from World Wide Waste was published in A List Apart

Shoptalk podcast with Chris Coyier and Dave Rupert
Gerry McGovern talks with us about the amount of energy used sending the bits and bytes around the internet, the cost of storage, new phones vs old phones, the scale of data, and how do we adjust our process and culture to make changes