Book Review: 'World Wide Waste' by Gerry McGovern

Websites, the Cloud, the Internet. They sound harmlessly non-physical; but digital communications, devices and lifestyle choices gobble up real resources. Gerry McGovern makes the case for why we need to curb our digital addiction before we drag our planet into the trash bin.

Published: Jun 28, 2020

I get up for work in June, walk onto our balcony and feel the warm sun on my face. The blue sky is unspotted by clouds and unscarred by planes. Our city street, the nearby intersection, the whole neighborhood – usually revving up with sounds on a weekday morning – are all devoid of human or machine noise. All I hear is a symphony of birdsong punctuated by a swoosh of wind through the trees. This is the kind of world I’d like to leave my daughter behind.

It’s the 13th week in Corona lockdown in Germany. As restrictions start to loosen up, we’ll all go back to criss-crossing the skies in jumbo jets and plugging up the autobahn with dirty-than-thou VWs.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to work from home and I feel that’s saved time, money and energy: instead of a 45-minute train ride to the next-biggest city, I work from home and spend my day on my laptop in long video calls, answering chats, in virtual workshops, updating and uploading code, editing spreadsheets, slides and tickets. Instead of spending money eating out or on the go, I cook fresh meals at home. Instead of shopping for unnecessary things in town, I order my sustainably-made sneakers online. Instead of overnight seminars away from home or meetups after work, I learn online.

But reading Gerry McGovern’s World Wide Waste: How digital is killing the planet – and what we can do about it made me question my habits – as a consumer and producer of digital things, and as a fellow human. The digital-only book was not the guide for how to reduce the CO2 footprint of websites that I thought it was going to be (although it does that in part). Rather, it very convincingly links our digital habits and other lifestyle choices to how we’re ruining our planet.

“Digital is physical”

As I write this, my phone or computer is using energy to run my text editor and store my file (not to mention plenty of background tasks). While you read this page your device is consuming energy for its request, transmission and display.

Whenever we surf, tweet, post, order, send, return, save, snapshot, upload, download or anything else online, we use energy which causes physical pollution (1 GB = 0.015 kWh electricity + 0.0042 kg CO2).

For me, one of the core messages of World Wide Waste was how to reframe digital:

“Digital is physical. Those data centers are not in the Cloud. They’re on land in massive physical buildings packed full of computers hungry for energy. It seems invisible. It seems cheap and free. It’s not. Digital costs the Earth.”

I often plug website URLs into for an estimate of their carbon footprints. Calculating the CO2 emitted for visiting a webpage is complex enough: you have to consider how big the page is, how much content is cached, whether it’s being hosted on a green server, whether users load the page via energy-intensive mobile networks, etc.

But energy use for digital communications is only one side of the story. Manufacturing electronics uses up far more resources:

“Most digital energy is used not in the processing, storage or transmission of data but in the manufacture of the machines used to do the work. It’s estimated that Google uses about two million servers at any one time. These servers will have consumed most of their energy during their manufacture.”

Taking that kind of reasoning to heart might get you to hold on to your current smartphone for a generation or two more.

How digital multiplies wastefulness

World Wide Waste is chock-full of numbers and statistics like these that paint a grim picture of our digital lives:

So most of the data we generate is useless and we are generating it at a rate that is hard to comprehend.

Internet speeds have increased dramatically worldwide since the 90s, but websites are not getting faster. People keep adding ever more stuff: more images, more videos, more ads, more trackers, more widgets and bulky scripts.

And websites, apps and other software often succumb to “feature bloat” to make the highers-up look good or for some short-lived marketing campaign.

McGovern has consulted some of the biggest IT companies around the world on using his “Top Tasks” method to separate the trivial from the small set of tasks that really matter to people. After conducting surveys with hundreds of thousands of participants, he found that 5% of potential tasks on a website get 25% of the vote. That left me wondering: What if we could whittle away all the crap on websites until the only things of value remain?

The steady rise of lean technologies such as static site generators and the Jamstack and green UX thinking revolve around the idea of a sustainable internet. But McGovern goes a bit further and promotes the “Three R’s” of digital: 1) recycle useful information in a lean way so others don’t have to recreate it in a fattened up form, 2) radically reduce the amount of digital stuff we create, and 3) remove something that is creating pollution by deleting it.

How digital costs the earth

If you’re like me, you go through the day always trying to make the right choice: paper or plastic, paper or porcelain, print or digital, gas or electric.

Usually it’s impossible to really know what’s “better” for the environment. Ordering your coffee in a ceramic cup might sound like the sustainable alternative to a paper cup. But manufacturing ceramic takes a lot of heat. And if you think you can just recycle a paper cup, the plastic lining makes it difficult to do so.

McGovern explains just how our hunger for new shiny electronics hogs resources:

Google and Apple are often applauded for switching their data centers to renewable energy. But as McGovern points out, that’s akin to greenwashing:

“The windmills and solar panels that make our renewable energy all need to be manufactured, transported, installed, maintained and retired. That all creates pollution. The renewable energy they create needs to be transmitted across creaking electrical infrastructure and will feed billions of hungry digital machines that were themselves manufactured and will ultimately become waste; some of the worst and most toxic waste ever to have been created.”

I agree that we all need to question whether companies’ efforts to “go green” really matter. McGovern doesn’t go nearly as far as Mike Monteiro in Ruined by Design who incites disruptive behavior such as staging walkouts (which probably wouldn’t make sense now with so many working from home) or sabotaging workplace productivity. Still, I think we designers – especially the quiet ones like myself – need to speak up, ruffle our colleagues’ feathers and ask what our companies’ value chains cost the planet.

How digital costs society

Reading World Wide Waste reminded me: even though I ordered my sustainably-made sneakers online with the best of intentions, someone somewhere paid the price for my convenience.

McGovern reminds us of Amazon warehouse workers and delivery truck drivers who are worn down just so someone can have some useless possession or piece of clothing which they return. He contrasts the hazardous working conditions and child and slave labor that goes into mining rare earth with phone designers who get treated to free lunches, smoothies and ping pong tables.

“Digital has and will continue to deliver inordinate rewards for a tiny elite, while taking the jobs of millions and turning millions of others into low paid ‘gig economy’ serfs. Digital concentrates power. Digital concentrates wealth.”

McGovern goes on to tie digital lifestyle choices to other phenomena, such as:

Over the course of several chapters, McGovern tries to draw a comparison between digital and the rise in plastic production (“we could be ingesting a credit card’s worth of plastic every week”), fast fashion (“every second, the equivalent of an entire garbage truck full of textiles is dumped or burned”) and our appetite for sugar (which causes diabetes and leads to monocultures).

While those industries certainly cater to human addictions and laziness, I found those chapters too long, winded and a bit off-topic. But I still agree with the point McGovern was getting at: society pays the price for the ease and comfort of doing things online.

How digital costs the individual

As marketer/author Seth Godin wrote:

“When you bought your first smartphone, did you know you would spend more than 1,000 hours a year looking at it? […] If we wasted money the way we waste time, we’d all be bankrupt.”

Similarly, McGovern highlights how one major digital habit gobbles up our time: snapping pictures.

Sure I love taking pictures of my little one growing up. For every picture with the right setting, lighting or expression, there are 10 others that I could just delete – except I don’t. I’ve spent so much time trying to find and re-find certain ones. Apple Photos does a good job at grouping similar images, but it could go one step further to reduce e-waste by asking to delete the collateral shots.

The “Laws of UX” remind us that digital communications are multiplicative: finding truth and relevancy becomes increasingly important in an ever-accelerating world of information, choices and fake news.

McGovern reminds us of our digital ticks – checking our smartphones the first thing in the morning and the last thing at night, at the dinner table, on the potty, whenever you’re waiting or see other people pull out their phones – are signs of addiction. He urges us:

“Try to have a clear purpose before you pick up your phone or use your computer, and only use them for that purpose. Have places where you won’t use the phone, such as at the dinner table. Do some phone fasting. You can do it. It’s good for you.”

What can I as a product owner / developer / designer do about digital waste?

McGovern mentions several ways that product owners, designers and developers can help reduce digital waste:

Those practices make pages load faster (i.e. web performance optimization), improve SEO ranking and the user experience – and ultimately lessen environmental impact.

The point about avoiding stock photos also struck home with me: I’ll have to go through pages on this site and remove all those Unsplash photos I added more for the look and feeling than for their utility and value. (As a side note: You might be wondering why I added a picture to this article. I thought it would help perspective readers more easily associate this review with the book – and it’s an optimized SVG.)

But there’s more to it that just the techy side of things. We product owners, developers and designers need to “think about the weight of every design decision”, educate colleagues about the environmental cost of our digital products, lobby for limits on page weight, draw up business cases for getting rid of rather than adding to the hundreds of pages you already have online that no one ever visits.

McGovern rightly criticizes the online marketing industry for pumping out so much e-waste and pushing the costs off to the individual:

“If a typical banner needs to be seen one million times in order to achieve a purchase, then that’s 100,0000,000 KB, which is 100 GB. Transmitting one GB consumes about 0.015 kWh of electricity. For 100 GB that gives us 1.5 kWh which creates about 0.42 kg of CO2, according to RenSMART, for each banner ad over its lifetime.”

The more (unnecessary) ads a smartphone user sees, the more they may have to pay for data ussage (see Tim Kadlec’s What Does My Site Cost?). The images from display ads are only one part of the eWaste. Online ads are not complete without tracking, which leads to more data transfers and privacy issues.

Online ads don’t make the advertisers rich as clickthrough rates are mind-numbingly low and conversion rates attributed to ads are infinitesimal. Rather, the Googles and Facebooks of the industry are the true winners.

What can I do as an individual to reduce my digital-carbon footprint?

After all the examples of how digital ruins the environment, society and us individuals in World Wide Waste, McGovern assures us that digital also has the potential for good: when it’s used to make things and processes more efficient, to make more accurate models of a chaotic world, and for conservation and renewal.

That brings me back to me on the balcony during Corona lockdown. I think about how it takes a virus to make people change their habits and wonder: What will it take for all of humanity to stop ruining the earth?

Like McGovern, I know bad habits are hard to kick:

“I still waste time and the Earth’s energy every day unnecessarily going online when I should instead be doing something physical or at least cleaning up a bit more of the digital poo I’ve left lying around.”

And while my livelihood depends upon the digital industry, I still need my digital-detox time in the forest or taking the time to make a nice home-cooked meal. Perhaps the best way forward is for me to be more mindful of my lifestyle choices – and to get YOU, dear reader, to consider the same:

“Slow food. Slow fashion. Slow digital.”

More from my blog

All Blog Articles →