Virtual mail, real pollution: ‘Think before you thank’

Greta Lazzarotto
luglio 2024 - 4 minuti

This is not an invitation to rudeness, but the campaign launched in 2019 to raise awareness about the ecological footprint of email. It may be politeness, but it may not be worth sending an email to just say ‘thank you’…

How much does an e-mail pollute?

Not much. According to the study ‘How bad are bananas: the carbon footprint of everything’, conducted in 2010 by Mike Berners-Lee, a text-only email produces about 4 grams of CO2: meaning that its cost in ecological terms is certainly lower than sending a paper letter.
Despite using only 1.7 per cent of the energy needed to send a letter, however, on balance virtual mail has a greater impact than the dear old letters. Paradox? No, let’s find out why.

Virtual mail vs pen and paper: why email is less green

Think about how much effort you put into sending an email: it borders on zero, right? You’re already in front of the computer, message, recipient, subject and… click, send.
Now think about having to send a letter: take paper, pen, if you make a mistake there’s no Ctrl + Z (⌘ + Z, for Mac addicts). Envelope, stamp, go to the post box. At least a couple of days for it to be delivered.

You realise that, if you think twice before sending a letter – you don’t want to risk having to go through the whole rigmarole again – the same is not true of e-mails: the convenience and speed of the e-mail tool push us to send an extremely higher number of messages and so the e-mails sent daily exceed – on average – 60% of the letters that were sent before the advent of digital. This explains how not one, but the totality of e-mails that traffic the servers, is more impactful than paper.

Why digital does not mean green: some numbers

Ademe, the French environment and energy management agency, calculated how much the use of e-mail affects energy consumption and related pollution. Result? Sending 8 e-mails corresponds to travelling one kilometre by car when looking at CO2 emissions. In detail, sending a single 1 Megabyte e-mail emits about 19 grams of CO2: a company with 100 employees sending 33 messages each on each working day over the course of a year emits about 13.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide: the equivalent of 13 return trips from Paris to New York.

Digital pollution: the weight of data

Simply sending an email has an ecological footprint, as does every action we take online: from a download to every interaction on social networks.
But how do we explain the web’s impact on the environment? To put it simply, the reason lies in the physical part of the digital world: the servers!
Every piece of data transmitted, every email sent bounces around servers located around the world and the electricity required for a server to function and maintain a stable temperature increases as the weight of the data increases. Did you know that e-mails are copied approximately 10 times by the various servers whose task it is to transmit them to the typed e-mail address? In conclusion, the heavier an e-mail, the more passages occur between servers, the greater the impact on the planet.

Think, lighten…eliminate: a guide to eco-friendly mail

Going back to carrier pigeons is a long shot, but there are a few things you can do to reduce your digital footprint: here’s what you can do.

  1. Reread your e-mail and check that it contains all the information to be transmitted, including attachments: send one complete e-mail instead of two.
  2. Lighten or compress attachments to reduce the weight of your mail: sending one mail can produce 50 grams of CO2 if attachments are large.
  3. Avoid unnecessary cc’s: fewer recipients, fewer servers at work. Oh, and use mailing lists wisely.
  4. Ask yourself whether it is really necessary to send it, as Think before you thank teaches. Every day in the UK alone, more than 64 million useless emails are sent such as “OK, thank you” or “Did you get my email?”. To the desk colleague…
  5. Delete useless emails from your inbox: the non-profit The Good Planet has estimated that if we all deleted even 10 emails from our inbox, we would cut thousands of tonnes of CO2!

And you, have you ever thought about how many e-mails you send and receive every day? From today, take notice and start applying our tips. We leave you with one last bonus tip to do your part even better.

Magic word: Unsubscribe

You know those countless newsletters that don’t interest you and clog up your inbox on a daily basis? That’s it, they create unnecessary server traffic (and you don’t like receiving them). Make a small investment of time and start opening them, scroll down and click on that tiny cta, which from the footer whispers in a very low voice “Unsubscribe”: it may be magic, but don’t thank us 😉

P.S. The bonus tip does not apply to the Palazzina Creativa newsletter: we only send it out bimonthly (and we choose what to tell you well).