Making digital waste visible

We all understand the need to reduce waste and recycle more, but how does this apply to the digital waste we produce? We’ve spoken before about the ‘Big Landfill in the Cloud’ but what is actually going in it? We break it down and make that invisible waste visible.

Making digital waste visible

One of the main issues around digital waste is that we often don’t even know we’re producing it. Photos, videos, files, audio, emails, messages, internet searches and data are not real tangible things that we can sort into bins or compost. But they add up globally to have a big impact on the environment. 

When we consume and share content it is either being hosted by data centres or using energy on the device it is stored on. Currently data centres are producing over 2% of our global carbon emissions! And this is predicted to grow. But even if all of them switch to renewable energy, we are still massively over-consuming. And with widely reported negative effects on mental health, it is clearly not doing us much good either.

To put this in context: 

Each tweet you post generates around 0.2g of CO2. With 500 million tweets sent daily that’s a total of 10 metric tons of CO2 emitted per day.

Each email you send can vary from 0.3g for spam to a whopping 50g for an email with a photo. 

Watching online videos accounts for 60% of the world’s internet traffic and generates 300m tonnes of CO2 per year. 

So how can we apply some of the core principles of zero-waste lifestyle to our digital lives?


And I don’t mean what goes in the bin, I mean saying no. Don’t consume what you don’t need to. Is that app something you really need just because it’s ‘free’? Do you really need to take that selfie? Do you really need to watch that next episode just because it’s being offered? 


Think quality not quantity, make sure your digital interactions are bringing genuine value to your life or your company. If every employee in the UK sent 1 less ‘auto responder’ email, it could save a huge amount of carbon per year. At work don’t send 10 questions in 10 different emails, save them all up and put them in 1! 


Can you find ways to make the tools you already have work better for you? Can you re-skin a digital product to give it a new lease of life? Can you reuse your marketing content? Get some ideas here


Fix that code! Tools like Google Lighthouse and Ecograder can help identify issues to fix to become more eco-friendly and accessible. Design and build digital products in a way that can be easily iterated. When you’re buying your next smartphone consider opting for a refurbished one.


This is where Product Discovery and Lean methodology really come into their own to prevent all those apps that people download and then delete, being built in the first place. Test the desirability of a digital product before you get anywhere near building it.


An often debated one in zero-waste, but a very easy one to apply to digital, all those files you don’t need, delete them! All those rejected selfies or endless whatsapp messages are likely being backed up to a cloud, so get rid!. If your phone was on fire what would you actually want to save? At work avoid duplicating files more than is necessary and have clear policies for storage. Digital waste tracking is due to become mandatory for businesses in the UK in the next couple of years. 


When we really think about it, some of our daily digital habits are the equivalent of putting the heating on and then opening all the windows. With a bit of a shift towards a low-waste mindset we can really make a difference and live a much cleaner and greener digital life.