In 2017 Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet brought the challenge of our use of plastics to mainstream conscientiousness. Whilst most people were aware that use of one-use plastic was bad it was only the visualisation of the problems which caused a wide-spread desire to change.

Since 2017 there has been a dramatic change in opinions and a real pressure from consumers to force suppliers to change behaviours. As a child of the 70s its rather like a return to childhood having multi-use “shopping bags” and cardboard boxes in the corners of supermarkets. This is a stark reminder that sometimes “easy” solutions (in this case plastic bags) can have long-term detrimental challenges.

In the IT space we are seeing vendors seeking to reduce their environmental impact and the “green agenda” which was very prevalent pre-recession is again emerging as a topic of our age. But whilst packaging waste is visible and obvious there is also a hidden environmental cost to IT that few are talking about.

So I thought I’d share four of the more remarkable findings gleaned from a recent British Computer Society article. Just when you thought you were quite green, the harsh reality is there in black and white.

1. Manufacturing a computer takes 530lb of fossil fuel; 48lb of chemicals; 1.5 tonnes of water ie more resources than you need to make a car.

Plus, 81% of the energy used in the total lifespan of a desktop with 17” monitor is consumed during its manufacture, not its operation.

2. In the drive to cloud computing and consumption of on-line services we are just accepting that our information will be stored and managed within a colossal network of data centres. Whilst it is undoubtedly more efficient than old style localised data centres there is still a heavy environmental footprint.

There are an estimated 75 – 80 million servers operating worldwide (Amazon, MS & Google alone have 4.5 Million). The data centres in which they are housed all need power, from their UPS provision to their cooling equipment to their security and monitoring and fire suppression equipment.

And while efficiency ratings of data centres have improved and there’s been a huge investment in renewable energy to power them, there is still a significant net energy cost. 

Recent studies by Glasgow & Oslo universities have shown that streaming music on-line “produces significantly more carbon emissions than at any previous point in the history of music”.

3. A report in 2017 estimated that nearly 45 million tonnes of electronic equipment was thrown away the previous year.

With the constant stream of new phone models, tablets, ereaders – an estimated 100 million cell phones are got rid of every year in the US alone – that figure has only gone in one direction since.

And if you have trouble thinking what 45 million tonnes looks like, think jumbo jets – 125,000 of them! The latest estimate on ‘e-waste’ (half of which is attributable to IT and telephony) is 52 tonnes by next year if we don’t do anything.

4. Recycling is complex – but surely worth it.

In 2017, 1.46 billion smartphones were sold, with an average of $100 in electrical components inside each one. If just the raw materials were recycled, they would be worth up to £11.5 billion.

And with e-waste more generally, that is worth some $62.5 billion annually – more than the GDP of most countries.

Trivia gold! There is 100 times more gold in a tonne of smart phones than in a tonne of gold ore.

And with that I’m off to find my box of old phones.