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The Internet’s Carbon Footprint & How You Can Help Reduce It

e-waste
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The Internet is probably the last place you think about having a large carbon footprint. But the numbers are staggering. It's estimated that the Internet produces about 300 million tons of carbon dioxide each year, reports The Guardian. That's the equivalent of how much CO2 the world's volcanoes produce annually. It's also more than half the amount of fossil fuels that are used in the U.K. The bottom line: The Internet contributes to more environmental waste than you think.

With that being said, it's hard to estimate the environmental impact of the Internet. Think about it. It's virtually impossible to measure the energy it takes to power all of the computers in the world. And what's even more difficult is knowing whether those users were online or offline when their computers were up and running.

Data Centers: Measuring E-Waste

A fantastic starting point for measuring e-waste are the numerous data centers around the world. Data centers contain rows and rows of servers that store website data. All of these servers use electricity. And the more servers, the more the cooling devices needed to prevent overheating.

There are tens of thousands of these centers all over the world, according to estimates from the New York Times. The newspaper found that those "data centers use 90 percent of the energy they pull off the grid." And each data center has numerous diesel-emitting backup generators in case the power goes off. In some parts of Silicon Valley, the air is so polluted that it appears on the state's Toxic Air Contaminant Inventory. A single data center can use 30 billion watts of electricity, which is almost equal to what 30 nuclear power plants emit.

These data centers are constantly running because we all want to be able to access the Internet at the same time, all the time, without interruptions. They continue to run at full capacity regardless of how many people are online at a given time. Data centers must constantly be prepared for unexpected surges in traffic. If they’re unable to handle a sudden influx of users, the staff can be fired.

A Solution to Digital Waste

If you're concerned about your computer use being environmentally friendly, you don't have to give up the Internet altogether. Cloud computing has tremendous eco-benefits. In case you're not familiar, cloud computing involves storing files online as opposed to storing them on a server. The Carbon Disclosure Project found that a company using cloud storage can reduce energy consumption and decrease carbon emissions. The group estimates that companies who start using the cloud can save $12.3 billion and reduce carbon emissions equal to about 200 million barrels of oil.

Certain programs, such as some of Apple's, give you the option of storing your data on the cloud. If you're searching for a place to store information, companies like Mozy can help. The company offers individuals and businesses different products to meet their needs. You can also purchase cloud storage from a variety of providers.


Teresa K. Traverse is Phoenix, Arizona-based freelance writer, editor and traveler. Check her out online and follow her tweets @teresaktraverse.