ice floes near Greenland
PHOTO: William Bossen

According to “The Cost of Music,” a joint study by the University of Glasgow and the University of Oslo, greenhouse gases were recorded at 140 million kilograms in 1977 for music production activities (vinyl, plastic packaging). Moreover, they were at 136 million kilograms in 1988 and 157 million in 2000. In 2016, the age of streaming, greenhouse gases were estimated between 200 and 350 million kilograms in the US alone.

“Storing and processing music online uses a tremendous amount of resources and energy,” Dr. Kyle Devine, an associate professor in music from the University of Oslo explained, “which has a high impact on the environment.”

Furthermore, I read an article a while ago, which said that the amount of energy consumed by a voice assistant while turning the lights off or on is significantly greater than the amount of energy required for a human to get up and turn the lights off or on.

Additionally, smartphones are particularly villains when it comes to energy waste. “In absolute values, emissions caused by smartphones will jump from 17 to 125 megatons of CO2 equivalent per year (Mt-CO2e/yr) in that time span, or a 730 per cent growth,” Lotfi Belkhir, associate professor and chair of Eco-Entrepreneurship at McMaster University wrote. Consequently, since much of this energy is used up in production — combined with the fact that smartphones have extreme obsolescence strategies seeking to establish a habit that you must change them every two years — it results in a willful and deliberate waste of energy.

Every text message, piece of content, photo, email or chat contributes to the climate crisis. We need to consider our digital carbon footprints and seek out how we can reduce it because the digital world is a parasite on earth’s energy and resources. As designers, we should design in an environment-friendly manner and be as digitally green as possible.

It’s one thing for a useful piece of information to consume energy through production, publication and presentation costs. This information could potentially be carbon neutral by helping those who consume the information to consume less energy. A smart home, for example, could identify waste and reduce it.

Even with useful information, waste may be involved. “Based on the information provided by HTTP Archive, the average web page size in 2010 was 702kb compared to in 2016 which is 2232kb,” an article in KeyCdn stated. So why does that matter? Because these bloated pages need to be stored and transmitted. “The gigantic data centers that power the internet consume vast amounts of electricity and emit as much CO2 as the airline industry,” a Yale article stated.

Useless information is an absolute waste. How much useless information are we producing? Can we use less text or fewer images? Can we take unnecessary weight out of our images and code? Ironically, useless information hurts the organization that produces it because it makes useful information harder to find and use. Further, most websites I deal with tend to become much more efficient after they delete 80% of their pages. Imagine how much energy we could save if we never created those pages in the first place?

The digital environment is much more wasteful than the physical environment since it is easy to create, copy and publish digital things. Our oceans are full of plastic. Our websites are even more full of crap. We treat our digital environment even worse than our physical environment. It’s high time we changed.