What is digital waste and why do we need to worry about...

What is digital waste and why do we need to worry about it?


Waste is just about everywhere in our lives these days, and we’re very often made aware of it through recycling campaigns and other similar initiatives. But since many aspects of our lives now rely mainly on digital technology, it’s easy to think that waste is not much of an issue anymore, when in fact it’s just been transfered or transformed into something else: digital waste.

So what is digital waste? To put it simply, out of the all the energy and resources that are invested in the creation and maintenance of technology, some are bound to be more useful than others. The least useful aspects – the ones that provide no value for the end user –  are the excess, the surplus, or the waste. Not to be mistaken for e-waste, which refers specifically to discarded electrical or electronic devices that are destined for reuse, resale, salvage, recycling or disposal.

A new study carried out by researchers at the University of Bristol examined the impact of any particular digital service, be it delivered via a website or through the internet, aiming to re-design the software and promoting a more efficient use of the technology that supports it. They also looked at which aspects of the digital services actually provide value to the end user, thus establishing which are the least useful and need to be cut out.

But the issue of digital waste is a subject fit for debate when we consider other factors. For instance, the fact that the technology sector’s global carbon footprint is estimated to represent roughly 2% of worldwide emissions – almost as much as what is generated by aviation. But technology is more pervasive and it produces faster, more palpable results.

Taking the above example of the aviation industry, an estimate of 6% of the world’s population will fly in a given year, while around 40% have access to the internet at home.

Thus, digital waste would be in some way justified, but it’s still worthy of consideration and concern. With the spread of technology to almost all aspects of our lives, the tendency is to want more, faster, cheaper or completely free of charge.

To help the situation, some companies, such as Google, carry out life-cycle assessments of their products, which monitor the overall impact of a product –  everything from resource extraction, to manufacture, use and final disposal – to get a complete picture of its environmental footprint.