Throughout the last year, we have proven the power of collective action and are starting to look ahead at what is next to tackle, it is widely accepted that this is the climate crisis.
Digital data, the worlds fastest growing commodity and its environmental impacts are currently missing from discussions of a sustainable future.
Our newly hosted digital lives are taking a toll on the planet, through the physical devices and infrastructure as well as the energy taken to connect, process and store what is being produced on each screen or each interaction.
In this blog post I would like to look at the parallels between data and plastic usage. Following which there will be a second part about what we can learn from the fight against plastic.
Plastic is a known danger to the planet both in macro and micro scale cluttering the planet. I believe that due to the similarities in our behaviour towards these resources the same trajectory may be predicted for digital data as we have seen for plastic.
The internet is the biggest collaboration of the human race so far, its growth is escalating. The number of digital data interactions a single connected person has in 2020 is estimated to be 1426 (1), with messages, email, ordering, watch a film, scroll has been estimated to be 196.3 GB a month in Europe. Globally 53.6% have access to the internet currently increasing at an average rate of 10% increase per year. (2)
We have been manufacturing synthetic polymers for a century and a half now. It is cheap and properties can be tailored to purpose making it a replacement for many natural or sustainable traditional materials such as wood, stone, metal. It was soon found in homes, packaging food, clothes, toys and cars.
It went from being almost nowhere to omnipresent in design.
The increase in data usage is of a similar nature, initially it was used for communication and web searches. The invention of the smart phone and cellular connectivity has allowed a rapid expansion in uses and connected devices.
Like plastic the possible uses for digital data and connectivity is seemingly endless replacing old systems cheaply and conveniently, meaning it is now everywhere. Personal usage for streaming services, social media, searching, ordering has replaced many preexisting systems such as broadcasted media, physical items such as books and CDs, phone calls with video calls and maps with, well, google maps. All of these swaps are increasing the quantity of digital data being transmitted and stored.
Data is created unconsciously and often invisibly to the user. Data services are monitoring users activity to better algorithms, cookies on websites to better advertising. This could be likened to the plastic waste associated to the individual, where you purchase a product that comes wrapped in plastic when you did not want it to be.
There is not a future without plastic, as there is not one without digital data in our lives. They are both intrinsic our lives and the objects we use. The question which is applied to plastic which now needs to be applied to data is: when is it worth it? Built into most consumer electronics it would be very difficult to avoid completely.
Being a member of modern society without an internet connection would also be difficult, there are many times when we need to use digital data. Analog exchanges are now all being put onto our smartphones, online banking, job applications, appointments for the doctors, school work, working from home all requiring an individual to have access to a connected device and reasonable internet speed. There is not a version of the future without our reliance on connectivity increasing, all predictions say it’s only getting bigger. That means the innovations in data need to be in the quantity of data we use not to dispute its existence.
Plastic has increased the quality of life of millions allowing them to furnish homes, carry water, own clothes and toys which they otherwise could not afford. Whilst it is easy to shame the rafts of plastic swirling in the oceans, the positives must not be forgotten. Giving people a chair to sit on or a way to brush their teeth is important. Those who can afford to make the choice to reduce personal plastic consumption must remember there are also those who cannot without it damaging their quality of life.
Digital data and the internet have also created provided a route to equality by the availability of information. Allowing people to learn about the weather forecast, politics, money, empowerment through education, create work and easily connecting people to the rest of the world. The uptake of digital data is still in the expansion state for everyone.
In society we value convenience. Companies know that consumers want things as easy as possible.
From packaged food, beauty products, products for our homes, the endless tags and cellophane so we trust something is ‘new’. The value of plastic is so small it is used intentionally for immediate disposal. There is no cost to disposing any single piece of plastic to the individual.
Avoiding single use plastics often costs the consumer time and money – investing in reusable products, going to more shops and remembering to bring containers.
Convenience for data consumers means instant, what ever you want where ever you want – the packets of data you consume are made for you individually. They are also single use in time, the energy used to play a song, create the search results or infinite scroll, sent in packets through the network and exchanges to our devices. When you select a film to watch you do not know how far away the film is stored or how much energy it uses, but the convenience is what we want.
no end plan
There is not capacity to recycle all the ‘recyclable’ plastics in the planet nor store all the data we are creating. Plastic objects are designed in a way that materials cannot be extracted or too small for the machines to accept even if the materials are themselves recyclable. Like data it has been produced without fully considering what we will be passing onto the next generation. Who decides what is worth storing in a data centre?
It will take energy and space to keep the data we create, as the plastic is filling landfills the data centres are filling up which someone will inherit.
Additional physical waste is produced in electronics hardware as it reaches end of life. Phones, chips and memory are being produced at an incredible rate as they are constantly being replaced with faster, better more, efficient versions. Is the benefit in energy consumption of these weighed up against the cost to the environment of the energy and resources needed to create these devices? The cost of disposal to the individual or the supplier is small or nothing.
Advertising for data services and providers uses language such as ‘limitless’, ‘anywhere’, ‘anytime’, ‘instant’, ‘easier’, and ‘convenient’. Convenience is something people will pay a premium for, as our connected lives feel full and hectic, we look to live autonomously with its futuristic appeal. Bakelite was advertised as ‘the material of a thousand uses’, does that seem familiar?
what do we do?
Attitudes have changed to plastic in many developed countries as education increases around the problems associated to its use. This is leading to changes in consumer behaviour, product design, as well as government policy. What I propose is looking to what has been working to reduce our plastic consumption and carry it over to plastic.