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Cleaning up our digital waste

Looking out for the earth

Remember Y2K? We thought that there might be a worldwide computer meltdown when the calendar changed to a new century. I provided computer support in those days and started following Gerry McGovern. We all know the crisis was averted and Gerry moved on to other topics. These days, digital waste has accumulated as more and more storage is available and cheap to obtain. Unfortunately out of sight is out of mind. Many of those files are used only once but stored in perpetuity. It’s storage we keep paying for and most of us don’t see the climate impact.

Gartner describes dark data as “information assets organizations collect, process and store during regular business activities, but generally fail to use for other purposes (for example, analytics, business relationships and direct monetizing).”

This dark data is the majority of what we store and it mostly adds no value. Think about the number of files that you keep “just in case.” Organizations keep it for compliance purposes or to mitigate risk.

Because digital files don’t take up space the way a stack of books or papers does, it’s easy to forget that they actually do take up space and resources. And that space requires electricity, space and people resulting in a huge carbon footprint. If you have ever been in a server room, you know how hot they can get without dedicated cooling. Cooling alone accounts for 40% of a data center’s electricity use (Monserrate).

In a piece for The MIT Press Reader, Steven Gonzalez Monserrate says “The Cloud now has a greater carbon footprint than the airline industry. A single data center can consume the equivalent electricity of 50,000 homes.”

And as of 2022, the U.S. has 2,701 data centers. (

We all do it. Keep old files. Make copies of files or photos. I frequently use black-to-transparent and white-to-transparent gradients in InDesign files. A quick search revealed 100 copies of these files on my computer! And these files are huge–28 MB each! I cleaned up my gradient files leaving one copy of each on my hard drive and backup drive.

When I left my last job, it took me days to sort through and delete old files. I have resolved to clean up my digital files as I go and remember that cheap storage can have an expensive climate impact.

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Header photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash