The short answer my eco-warriors: it is not!
One of the things that eventually comes up with someone who lives or attempts to live a zero waste life or blogs about it is the hypocrisy that comes with it. No matter how you slice or dice it, we all generate waste. Zero waste is not all or nothing. Zero waste is currently not possible in the current system that we have, but it doesn't mean we can't try to have a low impact and reduce the amount of waste that we all produce.
Perhaps, the biggest thing that is definitely not zero waste is the use of the internet. I use the internet to share, educate and communicate with others. Doing so actually means I use up a lot of resources in the process. I will detail them below. The good news is that over time, the economics of scale helps us in in this case. For some background, I worked in IT and adtech for many years before going into sustainability so I am familiar with what it takes to get a technical application running and what physical systems are needed they are definitely not waste free.
Servers, Cables, Routers Oh My!
The internet is made up of servers, cables, routers all connected together to make up the internet. We don't see it, but it takes a lot of these devices to keep us all connected and this doesn't even include yet the end consumer's devices of laptops, desktops and mobile devices. Servers as one part of the eco system is made up of a complex combination of metals, plastics and glass. These take a good amount of energy to extract and manufacture together. The same can be said for internet cables and routers. While we don't necessarily buy these items for our homes, they exist to help us use the internet.
Servers, cables and routers and also constantly being updated so that they can process more information faster. It is important that as these age that they are recycled properly for a host of many reasons: 1) so that precious materials can be reused 2) to prevent hazardous materials from entering our waste and environmental system 3) minimize the costs to extract and make new things. Servers, cables and routers also travel the globe. They are packed in a lot of plastic packaging and Styrofoam to protect them on it's move. So while we don't include these items in our trash count, we need to be conscious of the waste externalities that they produce and how we are benefiting from them.
I've simplified this a bit, but the internet is a complex system that relies on hardware, software and various other systems to get it running and functioning that we we've come to expect.
The internet is powered by you...yes, but it is also powered by electricity. No electricity, no internet. All of the servers, routers and computer that create the internet network relies on electricity to ensure that the systems constantly talk to each other. While we can turn off our computers, we can't readily turn off servers or routers without affecting access for people. We may shut down a server or router briefly for maintenance, but there is always a backup of a backup to ensure it runs 100% of the time.
Additionally, if you've ever felt the bottom of your laptop during your work day, you know that computers get hot. Multiply your computer with a hundred more and make them 100x bigger and what you have is a a server farm that requires massive amounts of energy to cool down. This is done by placing large air conditioners to ensure the server rooms remain at a cool temperature. Many companies are investing in renewable energy to power their server farms to reduce costs and also to reduce reliance on standard means of acquiring electricity.
I mention these three large companies because they control majority of the internet, whether you know it or not. Amazon owns AWS which provides cloud computing platforms. AWS powers a lot of small businesses, governments, individuals, etc. This site is hosted by Squarespace and a few of its component are powered by AWS.
Like everything else, we have to know what our impact is as one user on the internet. In the same vein that we believe using one less disposable cup leads adds up in the end, we have to start thinking of the same when are on the internet. The internet is as wasteful as anything else in the world. It's also a fairly new human invention. To combat, here are 10 ways to reduce your impact as you browse and get your fill and try to find the last page of the internet.
- Keep your inboxes small and empty. Why? The less info that needs to be stored in servers, the less energy that needs to be used to maintain the large amounts of data. Unsubscribe from email lists that no longer provide you value.
- Limit your email use. Sending one word emails take processing power as the email protocols have to work through various servers to send and get the email to the recipient.
- Reduce what you send. Send a link that can be reused instead of an attachment. Attachments make emails much larger so they require more resources to send and store.
- Limit what you store online. It's easy to put everything on the cloud because it's accessible and fairly inexpensive but as mentioned above, these get stored in a server and the server farms need to be constantly kept at a cool temperature.
- Limit your internet usage. Facebook, Instagram, Netflix, and everything else takes a lot of power to keep running. With billions of people making small transactions over a small period of time, this adds up.
- Watch those streaming services. Yes, it's nice to get music from Spotify or YouTube, but again those require lots of energy to ensure the data gets from one place to another.
- Opt to use a search engine that is doing good. Ecosia plants trees with their advertising revenue. Ecosia is powered by Bing so you will get similar results if you had search via Bing and instead of the advertising dollars going to Microsoft, they go to plant trees instead.
- Block advertising. Advertising uses up a lot of space and data to load. While blocking advertising may restrict viewability of some sites (advertising is how sites make money and how most content is free), it's possible to reduce page loads by blocking them.
- Be efficient with your searches. If you know the URL, type it in directly to reduce pinging the search server each time you need to go to Gmail.
- Turn off your devices. Really turn them off. Many devices are constantly on and constantly connected to the internet so it's constantly pinging/downloading/uploading new information.
The internet is definitely not going away any time soon and the more we use it, the more we are ingrained to it. We need to understand that while we don't readily see how our internet usage generates wastes, we still need to understand that it takes a lot of resources to power the internet.
Did the question of the internet being zero waste ever come into your mind? What do you think? Can we lessen our impact with these small changes?