Server racks, used to store the growing amount of data we collect.

Digital Waste: How Data Storage May Be Harming the Environment

November 18, 2021 - Revolutionized Team

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We generate more data than ever — roughly 2.5 quintillion bytes every day. This number is on track to rise over the next few years as data becomes more valuable and as technology that can analyze large databases — like AI — becomes more sophisticated. While this information can offer serious benefits for companies, there’s also a dark side to our growing production of data — digital waste.

What Is Digital Waste?

The rise of cloud storage and computing has made large-scale data storage cheaper and easier than ever, especially for large businesses with the resources to buy large amounts of storage at once.

While it may seem like storing data shouldn’t be too energy-intensive, there is a carbon cost to data storage. 

Estimates vary as to how much energy data storage uses, but experts agree that it is definitely a significant amount of energy. According to one answer from then-Stanford engineering student Justin Adamson, for every 100 gigabytes of data you save and store in the cloud, you generate around 0.2 tons of carbon dioxide every year. 

This isn’t much CO2 compared to other carbon-generating activities, like driving a car or heating a home with gas. However, this carbon cost can add up quickly — especially for large businesses that rely on acquiring and analyzing massive “big data” sets. 

In 2016, the average business saved and stored 347.56 terabytes of data, according to research from HubSpot. Keeping that amount of data stored would generate nearly 700 tons of carbon dioxide each year.

When Does Data Become Digital Waste?

Digital waste is a new term that describes the environmental consequences of poor data stewardship. Digital waste is data waste, the long-term effects of storing vast amounts of information in a digital format — whether that information is raw data, processed data, idle or in use. 

Often, experts use the term digital waste to refer to the carbon emissions and energy consumption produced by data-driven infrastructures — like the massive database complexes that power cloud services offered by Microsoft, Google and Amazon. 

This is the definition that Harvard legal scholars Elettra Bietti and Roxana Vatanparast use for their article on digital waste, culture and technology law for the Harvard International Law Journal. This article describes how much energy that data-collection has started to use — as well as certain use-cases of data that are particularly energy-intensive.

According to current estimates, digital technologies account for around 4% of all carbon emissions. This figure is expected to double by 2025. 

How Does Data Use So Much Energy?

Certain uses of information are more energy-intensive than others. 

Training a single AI algorithm may require the generation of as much carbon dioxide as five cars will produce over their lifetimes. Bitcoin mining already uses about as much energy as some countries, and as the market grows, this energy consumption will grow as well. 

IoT devices, a popular tool for collecting information on everything from machine maintenance to HVAC performance, are on track to create 79 zettabytes of information per day by 2025. 

Businesses are increasingly adopting these devices to gather data that can help them streamline operations and predict future events, but the sheer amount of data they generate may be a problem.

Similarly, the availability and value of data from sources like vehicle telematics systems, online advertising services and ecommerce platforms may be driving the growth of business data-collection systems. Information from these sources can provide businesses with insights into the functioning of their equipment or the behaviors and interests of their customers.

Some experts also worry about the opportunity cost that comes with storing data. To store large amounts of data requires large amounts of physical storage hardware. To keep this hardware running is energy-intensive and space-intensive, requiring both power for the hardware itself and support hardware like fans and fire suppression systems. 

The growing amount of data that businesses collect also requires more and more storage space, meaning the additional production of drives that can store that information. All of these processes generate carbon emissions. 

Why Businesses and Individuals Create More Data Than Ever

This data waste originates from both individuals and business sources of data. 

Businesses are creating more data because data has become extremely valuable. Information from consumers, IoT devices and even a business’s own systems can all yield useful insights or other types of value. 

For example, consumer data is often a necessary ingredient in modern advertising and sales forecasting algorithms. The more customer data a business has, the more accurately it can predict consumer behavior, target content or forecast demand. 

IoT data provides similar value for businesses wanting to optimize internal systems. 

What Businesses and Individuals Can Do to Minimize Digital Waste

Both businesses and individuals can do a lot on their own to manage digital waste. 

Most businesses are already having conversations about data usage and governance right now. 

The growing importance of data privacy and new regulations, like the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (EU GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) have pushed businesses to reevaluate how they gather, store and manage data.

As business leaders discuss how new policies may ensure data privacy, they could also take steps to reduce digital waste.

A data audit is both a necessary step in improving data governance and likely a good place to start for any business with a large amount of stored data. Reviewing both existing data stores and sources of data can provide businesses with a chance to see where their data comes from and how much data they are holding onto. During this audit, they can classify datasets based on potential value and use-cases, allowing them to identify stored data that may no longer be needed. 

These data sets can be deleted or reduced in size, helping a business to minimize data storage needs and related carbon costs. Repeating these audits multiple times can help a business manage growing storage needs and take stock of enterprise data usage. 

Individuals can manage their own data waste in the same way. Regularly reviewing files on cloud storage or personal drives can help anyone to catch data they no longer need, allowing them to free up space and reduce storage spending.

Ending Digital Waste With New Laws and Attitudes Towards Tech

Other changes may need to come from the political arena — or even from a shifting of attitudes at a societal level. 

In their article on digital waste, Bietti and Vatanparast offer recommendations for how social and legal changes may help to reinvent the tech culture that has led to such high rates of data waste.

The two scholars recommend against technical fixes for the digital waste problem. They believe that the idea that “technology can fix social and political problems without the need for social and political engagement” is likely a cause for the rapid growth in digital waste to begin with. 

Simply investing in green or sustainable tech, as a result, won’t solve the underlying cultural and legal problems that have made generating digital waste so easy and so profitable.

Instead, changes like laws that govern data collection by tech companies, a greater political engagement that encourages public investment in how data-collecting structures are operated or even antitrust action may be necessary to transform the tech world in a way that prevents future digital waste.

New Approaches to Data Storage May Help Protect the Environment

Digital waste is likely to become an even more significant problem over the next few years. Experts are certain that businesses will continue to collect and store more and more data, especially as better tools for analyzing large amounts of data continue to emerge.

The energy cost of this storage is already significant, and will only grow as businesses store more information. 

New data storage practices and a change in tech culture or the current legal landscape could help reduce the impact of data storage on the environment. In the short-term, businesses can use strategies like data audits and new data governance strategies to mitigate their own data-based environmental impact.

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