Digital Exhaust: What is the Environmental Impact of a “Like”?

Last week while in the darkroom, a person I was sharing the space with commented that photography was the most environmentally destructive of all art forms. She was implying that analog, e.g. film, while a romantic niche currently, is environmentally damaging and digital is a huge improvement in this regard.

But is it, really? 

I have no illusions about film and its use of chemicals. However, we should ask the question, “What is the environmental impact of a ‘like’?” as well as the impact of our other digital and online behaviors?

There is, at obvious first thought, the never ending exhaust of digital content – much of it unlikely to be seen again – that bloats the cloud. It may seem innocuous, but that storage and let’s just say it, hoarding, for old and mostly unwanted digital files has an environmental impact. It takes a lot of computing power and extensive manufacturing process to make our fleeting digital moments and entertainment happen. We need more and more electrical power for it all, and that can be very dirty business. That’s the obvious.

What is perhaps not so obvious is what happens to all of our old, dead hardware? You might think it’s being recycled. Too often it is not. 

A recent story on OPB paints an ugly picture for so-called e-waste recyclers… 

Far too many “e waste recyclers” are not recycling at all, and are instead dumping the waste on poorer countries. The negative impact on environment and labor health is predictable.

I’m not advocating that we throw out all our of computers and electronic gadgets. Far from it. But we need to get much better with our e-waste disposal and recycling. We should hold companies accountable when they advertise “e-waste recycling”, but just dump instead. We should demand audits and tracking. I much prefer our government crack down on this, rather than marijuana edibles. 

Which brings me back to my darkroom friend. When I mentioned that digital isn’t eco-friendly at all, and why, she seemed surprised. She is younger than me, so it could just be generational perspective shaped by her coming-of-age in a tech world and its greenwashing popular myths. I certainly don’t blame her for thinking as she does. Film processing isn’t the cleanest thing. But despite its popularity in Portland, it’s now a speck of dust overall compared to the impact of mainstream digital use.

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