'Dirty Data' On Our Phones Is A Bigger Problem Than We Knew

If you needed a nudge to do a major cull of your phone pics and emails, this is it.
Dobrila Vignjevic via Getty Images

How many pics are saved on your phone right now? If you have a smartphone with a decent camera, chances are – thousands. The same goes for emails, too.

But all that unnecessary data you are storing and probably don’t think about is actually contributing to climate change.

According to a new survey, the amount of C02 generated by so called “dirty data” is contributing in the UK alone is the same carbon footprint as 112,500 return flights from London to Australia.

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) commissioned the research and found that the average British person takes about 900 photos every year, and has five others taken for every image posted online.

Those duplicated images amount to 10.6kg of C02 emissions per person as a result of the energy used and carbon footprint produced by storing all this data on personal and shared servers.

Our “dirty data” habits, as the IET labels them, also include excess data streaming and downloading, and storage of unwanted emails and messages.

Multiple lockdowns and the pandemic might have stalled our physical carbon footprint, but we’ve been clocking up the numbers while at home. In fact, the IET found that the biggest emission occurred during the last two years.

And while the accumulated amount of C02 produced in the UK is equivalent to 112,500 flights, individually that amounts to the same emission as driving from Land’s End to John O’Groats.

Do you have unnecessary pics on your phone?
Edwin Tan via Getty Images
Do you have unnecessary pics on your phone?

It’s not good news when you consider that Brits are a nation of digital hoarders.

According to the phone network Three, our phones are cluttered with 600 million uncontacted phone numbers, 400 million unused apps and 300 million unopened messages among the 44,427,637 smartphone users across the UK,

Three’s research also found that with every upgrade, nearly half (41%) of us move all content across from our old phones without deleting unused data – which is exacerbating the problem.

And, yes, tech companies and mammoth oil and gas corporations are the biggest polluters, and should be doing much, much more in the fight against climate change, but there are also individual steps we can take, says the IET.

Chris Cartwright, chair of the Digital Panel at the IET says: “Until now, a lot of the noise on carbon emissions has been focused on the big contributors – the aviation, transport, and food industries – or costly and disruptive solutions such as solar panels, micro-generation, storing energy using power walls and heat pumps. But the story doesn’t stop there.

“In our ever more connected lives, the data we now rely so much on also comes with a hidden carbon cost. Unsurprisingly, most of us don’t realise that our use of cloud storage means huge, power-hungry data centres are needed.”

Decluttering your phone is not only good for the environment but has other benefits too.

Lifestyle expert Katrina Hassan says: “Digital hoarding casts a spotlight on an area of our lives which is fast growing out of control. Just like the clutter in our homes, the clutter on our phones can provoke anxiety, raise our stress levels and distract us from living in the moment.

“I believe phones are an incredible tool, providing we have an accurate awareness of the content on our phone, as well as good boundaries in place to prevent them from taking over. Through decluttering our digital life one area at a time, we can intentionally tidy up and reclaim control, to ensure our digital devices add value and joy to our lives.”

So, time for a digital declutter?