Making digital waste visible

“The problem is that you don’t see anything. I think that’s the worst thing and why it’s so hard to make it real to people.” So says Virginie Guerin about digital waste. Virginie is a French urban planner, who is co-founder of the French NGO World CleanUp Day France, which also runs Digital Cleanup Day France.

I keep hearing about wonderful things happening in France when it comes to making digital cleaner and more sustainable. I wanted to hear from Virginie how they had gone about getting Digital Cleanup Day France up and running.

“First, we decided to create a recipe,” Virginie explained. “Because everyone was at home and everyone was cooking because of COVID-19. So, we created a recipe.” A key message for them was improving wellbeing. “It’s like if you’re cleaning your own home, you’re cleaning your computer, it means that you are thinking about the things that are important for you. And when your house and computer are clean, you feel better. We just suggest you do something and from this action you will learn lots of things. But at the beginning we don’t talk about the environment. We just talk about doing something together and having fun all together even if we are at home.

“You suddenly realize that you have hundreds of pictures that you’ll never use. Or maybe you have the same one thirty times and you don’t need it. And, of course, for each step we had some advice and information so that people can feel, okay, if I do that I will have an impact on this and that. If I send pictures on my smartphone to everyone it will have an impact that will be multiplied.”

The first step in the recipe was “to clean your email mailbox. Because we wanted to give something very simple to start with. Almost everyone has a mailbox and then we give some information on how to clean it. One girl told us that she opened her email account in 2008 and she had never deleted anything. She didn’t know anything about the impact. Lots of people think that things are literally in the clouds but it’s not in the clouds. It’s in some data center. It’s not in the sky. It was a very small action. We knew that emails are not the biggest polluters but it was something easy to reach.”

During a September 2020 campaign, “we had 15 million files deleted, accounting for 22 terabytes of data. 6,500 people got involved and we had 150 cleanup events all throughout France. We had companies that organized a virtual breakfast or coffee and the team worked together to clean up. We had citizens who put up a message for their neighbors. Okay, guys, I propose that next Saturday from 10 to 12 o’clock we will clean our computers all together. That was very interesting. The best thing was with the schools. Teachers used it as an opportunity to transfer to students the knowledge of what is the impact of digital waste.

“By March 2021, we had gone from 150 cleanups to almost 500 cleanups. So that was a big increase in six months. 60% of those involved were from companies. We had 11 million emails deleted, and we went from 15 million files deleted to 77 million. We got rid of 58 terabytes.”

Listen to Gerry’s conversation with Virginie