Researchers and businesses are increasingly intent on creating a circular economy, one that decouples economic success from the consumption of finite resources. By designing waste out of operations and transitioning to renewable energy, we can enjoy a high standard of living and continued innovation without consuming and destroying the world around us.
Digital technology has been used to make huge strides in reducing paper waste, increasing efficiency and reducing unnecessary travel and transport. And while these are definitely benefits worth noting, digital is not the entirely green solution we often think it is.
One prime example of how the digital revolution can remove some forms of waste while replacing it with others is the music industry. Consumers once had to go to a store to buy a record or CD. Now they can stream it virtually. With so many costly steps in the process eliminated, it seems obvious that digitally distributed music consumes less energy and resources than the old system.
But that’s not entirely true. Carbon emissions are not necessarily lower in the move from physical cassettes and CDs to streaming music digitally. Digital distribution comes with its own costs. As Naomi Xu Elegant reported for Fortune, “The music video for ‘Despacito’ set an Internet record in April 2018 when it became the first video to hit five billion views on YouTube. In the process, ‘Despacito’ reached a less celebrated milestone: it burned as much energy as 40,000 U.S. homes use in a year.”
Or, consider data centers: These centers are all over the world, and they store data on servers. According to a study published in Science, data centers like these use about 1% of global electricity.
As much as digital communication and distribution have allowed us to send content seemingly through thin air, the truth is that we need complex machines to do it. The World Economic Forum reported that “50 million tonnes of e-waste are produced each year, and left unchecked this could more than double to 120 million tonnes by 2050.”
The organization also said, “This is equivalent in weight to all the commercial aircraft we have ever built throughout history, or 4,500 Eiffel Towers, enough to cover an area the size of Manhattan.”
Google has the right idea in reusing server components, but the actions of one corporation are not enough. As a CEO in the tech space, I believe we need a better system for all corporate and consumer e-waste recycling.
From my perspective, it’s clear that we need systemic, large-scale change to manage our need for resources and energy in the digital age. This will require a multifaceted approach incorporating business, government and individual action.
Reevaluating how we build and maintain data centers can have a big impact on their sustainability. Along with making server farms and data centers more efficient, where these facilities are built could be an important factor in energy consumption.
Along with reducing total energy consumption, it matters what kind of energy these data centers are using. Hydroelectric, solar and wind power have a much smaller carbon footprint than power from fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. With their vast resources and influence, major IT and technology companies could advocate for a broader shift to renewable energy, which I believe is key to the development of a circular economy.
According to the World Economic Forum, 67 countries have enacted legislation related to e-waste, but enforcement varies widely. Globally, only 20% of e-waste is recycled on average.
Major device manufacturers also have a role to play by moving toward greater use of renewable and recyclable materials. In a circular future, the components of your old device could be repurposed to build the new ones you purchase. I believe we need to approach e-waste not as garbage but as the valuable resource it is.
Consumers can vote with their dollars by supporting brands working toward a circular economy. But steps should be taken in daily life to reduce the resources consumed by digital activities. Simple steps, such as cutting back on the number of emails you send each day, can make a difference. Individually, the impact of these actions might seem negligible. But with more and more people working online, some small changes in our behavior has the potential to help save resources.
It’s not only consumers and individuals who I encourage to reevaluate their approach to digital content. From my perspective, the false impression that digital content comes at no cost has led to a massive proliferation of it. In an omnichannel world, content must be delivered through a variety of channels, from email to mobile to virtual reality and more. Inefficient digital infrastructure means that our content takes up more space and consumes more energy than it needs to.
While the digital transformation of our culture and our economy has many benefits, it comes with invisible costs for which we must budget. It’s not that there’s no waste; it’s that the waste is less visible and recognizable.
Simply spreading the knowledge of these challenges is the first step to comprehensive action. On both an individual and organizational level, we can ensure that the digital transformation is truly a step toward a more sustainable circular economy, not just a trade of one set of problems for another.
Originally posted here