Trees: 181,000 of them to be exact. That’s the number of leafy green lives we will save if we pay our bills online, writes Vicki Kriz, author of GreenSmart: Save trees, pay bills online in a July 5, 2009 USA WEEKEND Magazine column. A wise idea, right? “To find out the impact your household could make, use the ‘Green Calculator’ at payitgreen.org,” the article concludes.
That’s all well and good, but who’s asking the even bigger question: How many trees are we trading for coal-burning smokestacks vis-à-vis the increasing load our proliferating gadgets place on the electric grid?
Consider the carbon footprint of the Internet itself. The electrical requirements are astounding, yet as long as the public perceives all things Internet and electronic as a “free Green lunch”, no end to this grand, green e-lusion lies in sight.
“A typical server farm uses 10 to 20 megawatts of power per hour — roughly the equivalent of 10,000 to 20,000 homes with every light and appliance turned on, says Jeff Monroe, VP of design and construction for Metro-media Fiber Network. “On a watts-per-square-foot perspective, data centers are one of the highest energy users in any industry,” Monroe told writer Elinor Abreu of The Industry Standard in 2001.
Today, the demand for new server farm territory has grown more than ever, Microsoft, Google and others admit. Undoubtedly, these football-field size data facilities, some larger still, compete for woodlands and prime agricultural growing areas, too. The green side to digital would appear, in fact, gray.
Who, for that matter, is factoring in the reality that trees are a fully recyclable, renewable resource — excluding old growth and endangered rainforest habitats — whereas the pursuit and production of petro-chemicals in plastics and the electronic circuitry used in everything from desktop PCs to electronic reading devices such as Amazon’s Kindle contain heavy metals and a host of other toxins?
“On average, the production of one eight-inch wafer [chip] requires 3,787 gallons of waste water, 27 pounds of chemicals, 29 cubic feet of hazardous gases and nine pounds of hazardous waste. These chemicals and gases include glycol ethers, which have been identified as ‘serious reproductive toxins’ by the EPA; and arsine, one cylinder of which if leaked could be lethal to an entire semi-conductor production staff,” the Earth Action Network, Inc. published in 1997.
To feed the world’s growing obsession with all things tech and geek, workers in Third World high-tech manufacturing plants are exposed, potentially, not merely to paper dust, bleaching agents or printing inks, but to far worse. And it is the Third World nations, again, who accept thousands of tons of electronic scrap the First World discards — with impoverished children in Africa, India and Asia on the front lines of exposure!
All things considered, does the notion of a “carbon footprint” tell the whole story — or has it perversely enticed us to embrace another form of harm entirely?
In pursuit of our electronic love affair, it would appear that even the most eco-conscious among us have all but forgotten that few of the devices we depend on offer biodegradability and/or minimally toxic manufacturing processes. Lest we forget, those are fair considerations too — more so than a carbon footprint alone can hope to quantify.
The mythologies of going Green are frightfully deep and pervasive. If only it were so simple: Trade this evil for thus-and-such eco-friendly solution! Yet for every action, an equal but opposite reaction. And from the looks of things, a more insidious one at that.
I Screen, You Screen, We All Screen | The Boston Globe
Carbon Myths | The Guardian
Internet Power Usage A Trade Secret | Lawrence Berkeley Lab California
Down on the Server Farm (PDF)
NRDC: Trees vs. Books