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The environmental impact of junk mail

By Jean-Claude Elias - Mar 19,2015 - Last updated at Mar 19,2015

When you think of junk mail you usually associate it with various risks. You fear hacking, scams, viruses, Trojan horses and other Internet-related hazards. You rarely think of the environment and carbon footprints. And yet…

When you print you know that you are causing direct damage to the environment, because paper and ink are tangible indicators of that, ones that are before your very eyes. Using computers and networks, even if only in electronic, digital format, consumes gigantic amounts of power and, therefore, affects the environment as well. 

You may not see your laptop as a threat to the environment — and it probably is but a very small one — but the powerful server computers that operate the web are true polluters with carbon footprints that have a severe impact on our planet. The problem is that you as a consumer, a computer and a web user, don’t see them. 

The countless servers’ farms in the world, those mammoth-size installations that consists of large numbers of servers operating together and that weave the web consume incredible amounts of energy, mainly fossil fuel.

Figures can help to better realise the impact and the size of the damage done. Take one of Dell’s most typical server computers, the PowerEdge 710. Its carbon footprint for the duration of its lifecycle is 6,360kg, which is a CO2 mass that is equivalent to a family of four drinking about a 0.38-litre glass of orange juice every day for eight years (data and figures supplied by Dell). Can you imagine what a set of 1,000 servers, a very common size by the Internet standard, can do?

Of course a laptop’s carbon footprint would be much less and typically would be in the range 350kg, that is 18 times less than the above mentioned server.

The volume of junk mail is now such that it is taking a significant toll on servers, networks and computers, down to yours at home or at your workplace. You may install filters, firewalls, you may subscribe to the safest e-mail provider in the world and you may be avoiding all social networks so as to minimise your public exposure on the web with the aim of escaping unsolicited e-messages, you will still get some junk mail in your mailbox. Even those that are trapped and pushed in the junk folder by your system are a nuisance for in the end you are going to take a look at them before discarding them for good.

At the end of the day junk mail makes machines and networks work more, simply. Hence the terrible impact on nature.

Microsoft operates a little more than 1 million servers. Google, Amazon and the other giants working at similar scale employ, between 0.5 million and 1.5 million servers, each. It is mind boggling and… very much polluting.

If you’re wondering what the proportion of junk versus legitimate e-mail in the world is, you may want to take a deep breath before reading the figures: junk mail constitutes about 75 per cent of the whole, i.e. there is three times more junk than legitimate. Translate this into servers’ activity and then into carbon footprint and you can only conclude that it is an alarming, sad situation. “Three quarters of world’s e-mail traffic is spam,” says Alastair Stevenson of the technology website.

No one has yet found a way to reduce the “emission” of junk mail at the source, and nothing indicates it is going to be reduced anytime soon. Diminishing its impact on your own mailbox is possible thanks to more or less smart software and filters of all kinds, but this doesn’t mean it was not sent in the first and that it has no impact on the environment.

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