Digital pollution : unsuspicious impacts

11 April 2023 | digital pollution

Internet pollution : what impacts ? 

When we talk about digital pollution we usually think of many servers that need energy, not always green, to run. But Internet pollution also has some unsuspicious impacts. We don’t think about the internet pollution that we make when we’re posting a publication on social networks, the pollution linked to the extraction of metals to create connected objects and always strive to go further in technology. And what about social conditions in all of this ? 

The recycling of our connected objects ? So many questions that deserve answers in order to optimize our internet use and, more broadly, of technology. 

The definition of internet pollution 

Internet pollution is directly generated, and indirectly, by using all our connected objects and proposed services daily : computer for work and personal use, phone, smartwatch, streaming platform (as Netflix), website, social networks, etc. 

Indeed, our connected and digital objects of every day are energy consuming, from the manufacturing to the use until the end of it. And so, recycling when it’s possible. 

Although our devices don’t reject visible pollution, the impacts of the internet pollution are yet real and colossal. 

An email with an attached file by example, consumes the equivalent of a low energy bulb turned on during an hour according to the ADEME. However, in 2016, 2672 billion emails were sent worldwide. 

According to the report of Greenspector on the 21st of october 2021, the news feed consumes 1.8 more energy than Youtube. Still according to this report, a user of social networks on his phone would generate 102 kg of CO2 equivalent. 

This is the equivalent of 914 km traveled by a light vehicle in France. 

However, to answer the users’ needs at any time of the day all around the world, we need to rely on the datacenter (infrastructures composed of computers, servers and huge hard drives). The latter are connected and powered permanently. By the way, they need to get cold. So this has consequences for a huge consumption of electricity. 

By this fact, it’s a real environmental problem of our generation because the Internet consumes 16% of the global energy. The sector of digital represents 4% of global emissions, this is 1.5 more than the airline sector by the Shift project

Finally, to represent things better, if the web was a country, it would be the 3rd most consumer of CO2 behind the USA and China.

Even if it needs a lot of energy, the digital sector pollutes even at its creation : during the extraction of metals, it needs to manufacture new objects. 

Extraction of metals, social and environmental impacts. 

Whatever the metal you’re looking for, the result is often definitive : polluted ecosystems entraining the death of tens of thousands human beings and non-human. An ecological and social catastrophe. 

We’ll see in this part the amount of the human damage caused by the mining activity. In a second time we’re going to detail the environmental impact : follow to extractions of minerals and to the assembly. 

Nowadays it is common to speak about the rare metals war, because, like its name, these metals aren’t easy to find and get more and more rare. So, what’s the impact of the extraction of these resources and the ecosystems?

Social impact  

Nowadays, we find rare minerals in South Africa, on the African continent, but also and mostly in China, where the extraction of metals is majoritarily practiced.

Indeed, the environmental regulations are more flexible than in Occident. On another hand, the 80s saw the birth of strict regulations of environmental protection. Thus, the mining activities and of refining, that are polluted activities, have been moved in some countries ready to sacrifice the environment and the biodiversity to harvest a part of these wealthes.  

Implantation of mining deposits near agglomerations is not often submitted according to the local population. By this fact, when they’re not losing their lands, communities need to renoncer of their economic activities such as agriculture. In cause, the pollution of water currents, and even water scarcity. 

Indeed, the extraction activity of rare metals contributes to the long-term pollution of water currents by deversing toxic products in soils. 

Contaminated water infiltrates itself in soils, pollutes rivers and sometimes forms lakes. The pollution of the air and of water leads to a multiplication of breathing diseases, skin and carcinogens. 

Guillame Pitron, author of the “Rare metals war” surveyed for more than 6 years on this commerce and explained that around these mines “riverains live by thousands in what we call “cancer villages” because people die one after another”. 

Equally, even if soils are polluted, the refining mission can generate some metallic dust charged with radioactivity. Employees, almost only men, work several hours in a day, without appropriate protection. Finally, the rate of cancer of living people not far from the open pit mines is the highest rate. 

The impact on humans is overwhelming. It lets appear in an obvious way the environmental impact associated. What is it exactly? 

Environmental impact 

When you finally have your device, you have the finished product of course. But do you know how it travels to your hands? Let’s take an illustration with your phone. 

Between the conception, the extraction of materials gathered at the same place for the assembly and finally the commercialization all around the world : once in your hands, a phone made about 4 times the world tour. 

As it needs materials to manufacture a phone, like lithium, gold or metal, the needs for every connected object and datacenter are the same, in different quantities. 

Thus, it’s easy to imagine the environmental impact of the manufacturing of the latter. 

On another hand, metals, before going to a world tour trip, during their extraction, generate a soils pollution not insignificant. In addition to being sometimes realized in mediocre work conditions, as we have seen above. 

Guillaume Pitronn, details in his book the procedure and the consequences of this industry. Indeed, the most effective technique to remove the metals consists of making the ground on the surface virgin of all vegetables in order to dig galleries until minerals. It is obvious that this first part of work is a disaster in terms of biodiversity. Then, chemical substances and other acids are used to separate elements in every scoop. These are poured and infiltrate itself in soils, groundwater until water currents. 

By the way, Olivier Vidal, researcher at CNRS equally explains the pressure that we put on our resources by putting in front the exhaustion of rare metals. Indeed, the rhythm of the current production tends to an exhaustion of about 15 base metals and rare metals around 2060. 

Yet, the demand and the production can’t stop growing. 

We have seen it, the creation then the use of every one of these objects is an energy consumer. But the problem of waste emitted at the end of life is more important. 

Objects recycling

Due to the programmed obsolescence and the technological advancement getting faster, our objects always need to renew themselves in order to follow news. By this fact, defectuous or outdated devices are replaced by some news, the others are recycled to 5% only. In order to not be outdated technologically, connected objects get replaced quickly. 

Thus, every year almost 50 millions of tons of toxic electronics waste are accumulating in the whole world.  

Besides waste, it’s also the metals recycling itself that goes wrong. Indeed, Guillaume Pitron, recycling these metals cost more to industrialists than going and getting metals and minerals directly in mines. 

Although some of them are recovered, an astronomical quantity is left and finished in open dumps. 

In Delhi, for example, there would be about 8.000 phones, 5.000 televisions and 3.000 broken computers every day. Sometimes they still can work, almost new, to recover the composants. 

At the moment, recycling is still not at its higher level of efficiency. 


Although the use of the technologie and of the internet essentially became into our modern occidental life, it is by the way necessary to nuance and adopt a careful look on our consumption. Isn’t it possible to limit our consumption and the rhythm of the renewals of devices? And to reduce the environmental impact and carbon emissions of these technologies? Of course we can. Greenoco can in some part help you to reduce the carbon footprint of your website. 

Don’t hesitate to join us and make the first step !

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