Up until today, I have had a cheesy message at the bottom of my email signature, that said "Please think about the materials you use - do you need to print this email?"
That was until I found out the materials used in making components for data storage could be worse for the environment than sustainably-sourced paper.
See, all of those attachments that we send, download, upload and share around cyberspace are actually stored somewhere, far away, on electronic equipment. These machines - which are rapidly proliferating in giant new datacentres- create as much CO2 as the airline industry worldwide. As people flock to Facebook to upload photos for all to see and share, the footprint of meeting our storage demands increases: a team of scholars has found that this is likely to double by 2020.
If you take a look at what the storage machines and other IT equipment is made of, you could be forgiven for wanting to go back to trusty paper, pens and tapes to store your information.
Essential components for storage include rare-earth metals, which are stripped from the earth at a heavy ecological cost: 97% of worldwide rare earth metal mining occurs in China, with minimal environmental compliance.
In 2006, 120,000 tonnes was produced. To mine one ton of this stuff, 9,600 to 12,000 cubic meters of waste gas-containing dust concentrate, hydrofluoric acid, sulfur dioxide, and sulfuric acid-are released.
Then they wash it. Around 75 cubic meters of acidic wastewater, plus about a ton of liquid radioactive waste residue are also produced, most of which is discharged into rivers without being effectively treated and undoubtedly wreaks havoc downstream along the heavily populated Yellow River.
The pollution has poisoned the very land and groundwater that used to support farming and pushed many people - sick of inhaling sulphuric acid fumes and enduring widespread illness - away to greener pastures.
So what can we do?
Although it might be hypocritical now as I type, I do far prefer a book than staring and a piercing monitor all day. After finding all of this out it occurred to me that we could we shift back to something that grows from trees and maybe feel ok about that.
Printing has its own challenges, but solutions - unlike the technologies that store data - are simple and demand is starting to shift towards the better. This was alerted to me when our printers, Benefitz, explained that sustainability has become so crucial that the market itself has actually pushed other less environmentally responsible products away from the racks of their warehouses. This happened because of the staunch position that one of their clients - Les Mills director Phillip Mills - took on demanding sustainable inks and paper.
It is leaders like Mills, who refuse the readily-available cheaper options as a matter of principle that have started a market-driven shift towards better decisions. For Benefitz, sustainability has become of utmost importance and it has been excellent for their business growth.
So if you want to print this article and are using the right kit, then it is probably ok.
If you want to minimise the impact of data storage you can try to:
- minimise large attachments
- reduce unnecessary uploads (come on, do you really need 10 photos of your dog or yourself getting drunk on Facebook?)
- choose a responsible service provider. Google once again wins here: they have tactically built their immense data storage facilities next to renewable energy sources.