Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

A senior editor at Mother Jones, Kiera covers health, food, and the environment. She is the author of the new book Raise: What 4-H Teaches 7 Million Kids—and How Its Lessons Could Change Food and Farming Forever (University of California Press).


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Are Email Attachments Bad for the Environment? Part II

| Mon Aug. 16, 2010 4:30 AM EDT

Last week, I wrote about the environmental impact of email attachments. This stirred up lots of discussion among commenters here on the Blue Marble (almost as much as the oatmeal and Greek yogurt Econundrums) and also over at Kevin Drum's blog, Andrew Sullivan's blog, and the New York Times' Freakonomics blog. While some of the the comments did tend toward the all-caps "you idiot" end of things, many readers made interesting points. For example, one of Sullivan's commenters says:

I can't say for sure (given that her source didn't go into the details about his 17.5 kettles number), but that seems more like a lifecycle-analysis assuming the pictures are kept rather than viewed and deleted to free up memory space.  The same thinking can apply to the power use of the devices used to view the e-mails: I'm using my computer all day, so the marginal power consumption caused by receiving an e-mail with four attachments is probably negligible, and could even be negative; if I were running a program that required all of the computing power of my machine, but replaced some of that time with looking at LOLcats that my friend had sent me (without shifting the higher computer to another time), then distracting e-mails could actually prove a net power saver.

Matthew Yeager, a data storage expert who works for the UK data services and solutions company Computacenter, was my main source for the piece, and he has responded to some of the points that readers brought up in an email. Here's a portion of it:

Yes, at first glance I agree that the context of boiling a kettle 17.4x being equivalent to emailing a 4.7mb attachment seems too fantastic to does the worldwide datacentre industry being at parity with the airlines for CO2 production with 2% of all man-made CO2 comes from computers and communications technology.

The sources for both of these statistics can be found both directly in the body of the blog post as well as below for the BBC interview.

(Sources: Life-cycle analysis carried out by Mark Mills of Digital Power Group, translated into kettle boilings with help from the Energy Savings Trust [UK]; Green IT: A New Industry Shock Wave by Simon Mingay [Gartner])

It is important to remember that the point of the BBC piece was to discuss the 'data deluge' and how the creation of data is affecting our planet and, in this instance, Computacenter customers. Indeed, a recent statistic putting data growth in perspective has us creating as much data in two days as we did in all of 2003. "The real issue is user-generated content,” Schmidt said. He noted that pictures, instant messages, and tweets all add to this. (Source: Eric Schmidt, Google)

I note that in many comments (as well as the Andrew Sullivan commenter) commentators give what they believe to be well thought out arguments and related mathematical equation, however your focus remains on the server alone and does not take into account the power/cooling and related environmentals for the datacentre where the server resides, the networking equipment required to connect the server, the data storage array(s) attached to the server, et al.

It is important to take into account that the power calculations come from existing equipment and not the power to deploy them in the first place; there is much wastage at all levels of a traditionally deployed technology infrastructure of siloed storage, servers, networks, et al which can be calculated largely from the product datasheets as well as physical measurement such as that conducted and verified by the Digital Power Group [citation above].

Equally, a traditional datacentre can further complicate and exacerbate power issues...only 30% of the power entering a datacentre is actually spent powering the computer chips, whilst 70% of the energy is spent cooling the processors and removing the heat they produce with better than 99.9% of energy entering a microprocessor turned into heat. (Source: Bruno Michel, manager of advanced thermal packaging at IBM Zurich Research Laboratories.)

Hence we must also factor in the physical inefficiencies of the datacentre and the equipment therein to arrive at the 17.4x kettle boil statistic.

In my experience of working with hundreds of customers worldwide, it is not uncommon to find datacentres which have been incorrectly laid out [e.g. hot rows, cool rows] as well as ageing datacentre equipment which take up more power as well as require more power and cooling to service than that which you reference.

I've asked Yeager whether a PDF of the Digital Power Group study is available; I'll post it later if it turns up.

OK commenters, go nuts! (Respectfully nuts, that is, of course.)

Update: Here's an interesting piece from Wired UK (PDF) on the Internet's energy use. (Credit: Wired UK, July 2009, page 41)

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Are Email Attachments Bad for the Environment?

| Mon Aug. 9, 2010 4:30 AM EDT

At one of my first jobs ever, there was a guy who would print out every single email he received. Then, to make matters worse, he would forget about his printed emails and leave them on the printer. Occasionally, just to give him a hard time, we would hand deliver his emails to him and announce their contents. "Your wife says pork chops for dinner and she loves you!"

I haven't encountered anyone with that irksome habit since, probably because most people now understand that printing something doesn't make it more real. But according to Matthew Yeager, a data storage expert who works for the UK data services and solutions company Computacenter, emails—especially those with attachments—still use energy and create greenhouse gas emissions, even if you don't print them. Last month, Yeager told the BBC that sending an email attachment of 4.7 megabytes—the equivalent of about 4 photos taken on a point-and-shoot digital camera—creates as much greenhouse gas as boiling your tea kettle 17.5 times. I called Yeager to find out the whole story.

What I ended up getting was a very brief introduction to the strange world of data storage. According to Yeager, at some point in the coming year, the world will have a grand total of 1.2 zettabytes of stored data, requiring equipment with a mass equivalent to that of 20 percent of the island of Manhattan. Wonder how much data 1.2 zettabytes actually is? "If you took all the content in all the US's academic libraries and multiplied it by half a million, that would be 1.2 zettabytes," says Yeager.*

Part of the reason we have so much data has to do with redundancy: Let's say you take a picture and send it to 20 people. Each of those people then have to download it, which requires equipment—personal computers, servers, and storage centers. Steve Duplessie, a senior analyst at the Massachusetts-based data storage company Enterprise Strategy Group, explained it this way. "Ten years ago, a movie studio would physically make a certain amount of copies and then ship them off to the movie theater. Today every kid you know can create the equivalent amount of data in two minutes with an iPhone. We keep making data easier to create, so people do it. And data is not sedentary. It is shipped everywhere, usually over email. All of a sudden there are 7,000 copies, and because of that there are 7,000 devices that are being run to support that data."

Yeager didn't go into the details of how he arrived at the 17.5 kettle-boils figure, and Duplessie told me he wonders how anyone could come up with a data-storage figure that precise. Still, Duplessie says, the important lesson is, "Data is physical. When you have a million copies of the same thing, that's a big problem."

The good news is that we are getting better at sharing data more efficiently. Many email programs are beginning to make use of a concept called virtualization, or spreading the workload of transmitting data across many different servers, thereby making the whole process more efficient. "Virtualization is like the carpool lane," says Yeager. "Your email is carpooling. The more people you stick in that car the better." Equipment is getting more efficient, too. According to Yeager, the newest servers are about 1/20th the size of old servers, and as many as 50 times more powerful. Yeager notes that a few email servers—for example, Google—have already made these improvements (meaning that if you're a Gmail user, you're probably doing significantly better than the 17.5 boils figure).

The bottom line: Avoid sending giant attachments if you can. "In the last five or ten years a lot of people have added these 'think before you print' signatures to their emails," says Yeager. "Well we should all have 'think before you attach.'" Luckily, there are easy ways to share your data without attachments: Instead of sending photos directly to all your friends and family members, upload them to central locations like Flickr or Facebook. "It's much more efficient to send a link to a place where everything is stored," says Yeager. For audio and video files, I often use hosting sites like Sendspace or MediaFire.  

*- This sentence originally misquoted Matthew Yeager that 1.2 zettabytes was equal to the data in all the world's academic libraries multiplied by half a million. 1.2 zettabytes is actually only equal to the data in all the US's academic libraries multiplied by half a million.

Is Coconut Water Really Better Than Sports Drinks?

| Mon Aug. 2, 2010 4:30 AM EDT

As a runner, I always considered sports drinks a necessary evil: While I never loved the taste, I held my nose and downed my Gatorade for the sake of proper hydration. But last year, a friend handed me a little box of coconut water, which, she told me, had just as many electrolytes as Gatorade. I took a sip, loved the mild taste, and found myself regularly shelling out as much as $3 for 11 oz. of the stuff. That is, until it disappeared from my local supermarket earlier this summer.

Turns out I'm not the only one with a new coconut water addiction. Although the beverage has been popular for centuries in countries where coconuts grow, it has only recently been marketed in the US. Vita Coco, currently the country's biggest coconut water company, was founded in 2004, and according to spokesperson Arthur Gallego, sales skyrocketed from $4 million in 2007 to $20 million in 2009. The past 6 months have been Vita Coco's busiest yet. "Typically Vita Coco would keep 45 days of inventory, but that has all been blown through," says Gallego. "People used to buy by the unit, now they are buying in bulk by the box." 

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