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Dirty Data

New research today reveals Brits’ hidden dirty data habits, with the nation’s trigger-happy social snappers contributing over 355,000 tonnes of CO2 every year through unwanted pics alone: the equivalent to the entire population of Chelmsford flying to Australia and back.

With Brits admitting to taking an average of five pictures for everyone they post online – and 10% taking ten or more – a life lived through social media with endless selfies, scenic snaps, and ‘food porn’ needs to be managed. Producing a carbon footprint over a lifetime equivalent to driving from Lands’ End to John O’Groats[1], happy snappers are today being urged to simply ditch the dupes to slash their carbon footprint.

The new study by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), found just a quarter of respondents delete additional shots they take, leaving millions of identical images being added to storage every week. And for those that do delete their excess pictures, fewer than one in six (16%) say they do this for environmental reasons (i.e., to reduce the burden of energy needed to power servers used to store our data dumps).

With the average person taking almost 900 photos per year[2] the duplicated, unwanted images left in storage alone could accumulate 10.6kg of CO2 emissions annually for every adult in the UK[3] – the equivalent of over 112,500 return flights from London to Perth, Australia[4].

But it’s not just our social media habits that are damaging the planet. With nearly 80% of us failing to consider the environmental impact of our data use online, ‘dirty data’ habits could be silently contributing as much to global emissions as international air travel.

Reports suggest the carbon footprint of our gadgets, the internet and the essential systems supporting them account for 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions – on par with the airline industry. And, shockingly, these emissions are predicted to double by 2025[5].

With many of us actively carbon offsetting to justify exotic trips, the vast majority by contrast (80%) fail to realise the damage scrolling, snapping, and signing up to that never read email newsletter is also doing to our beleaguered planet due to the carbon hungry energy it takes to service and store data.

Some of Brits’ dirtiest data habits include:

  • Failing to delete duplicated pictures from our phones (69%)
  • Using two or more devices at once (almost 60%)
  • Passive streaming – focussing on another device when streaming TV/ video content (52%)
  • Failing to clear archives from messaging services - e.g. WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger (63%)[6]
  • Holding onto old text messages (56%)

Passive streaming sessions were also highlighted as wasting concerning amounts of data –driving up our most invisible carbon footprints. While most people (73%) regularly stream content through services like Netflix, Amazon, iPlayer, or Disney+, over half (52%) admit their attention is actually on their smartphone, not what they’re watching.

It’s estimated that one hour of video streaming generates a carbon footprint of approximately 55g CO2[7]. With Brits spending almost 40 hours per week on average watching streaming services and online videos[8], over the course of a year this quickly racks up to over 113kg CO2 – the equivalent of driving from Cardiff to Carlisle (295 miles)[9].

But it’s not all bad news; the IET’s survey also shows a significant desire to be more sustainable (71%), with two thirds (66%) believing everyone has an individual role to play in protecting the planet from climate change. And there are some incredibly simple steps we can all take to play our part.

Chris Cartwright, Chair of the Digital Panel at the IET says:

“We’re really pleased to see the public becoming increasingly engaged in environmental debates. We want people to feel empowered to get involved and play their own part in tackling climate change and contributing to the journey to net zero.

“Until now, a lot of the noise on carbon emissions has been focused on the big contributors – the aviation, transport, and food industries – or costly and disruptive solutions such as solar panels, micro-generation, storing energy using power walls and heat pumps.  But the story doesn’t stop there.


“In our ever more connected lives, the data we now rely so much on also comes with a hidden carbon cost. Unsurprisingly, most of us don’t realise that our use of cloud storage means huge, power-hungry data centres are needed.

“The vast majority of data in the world today has been generated in the past two years; a trend showing no signs of slowing. This is why we all have a responsibility to change our habits.

“Deleting unwanted emails and photos, limiting use of the ‘reply all’ function, turning off auto-play on podcasts, Netflix or Amazon Prime and even having a ‘video off’ zoom day – these are all small changes people can easily make to lead a more sustainable online lifestyle.”  

The IET’s top tips to simply lower your data carbon footprint and be more sustainable online:

  • Delete the dupes: Make a habit of deleting all your duplicated photos – it’s fine to perfect that perfect shot for Instagram, but simply deleting unwanted shots could make a huge difference to your carbon footprint.
  • Clean out your cloud: Don’t forget about your cloud storage. Clean this out regularly too to save much needed data space – and slash your emissions in the process.
  • Wipe the WhatsApps: Let’s be honest, most texts, messenger service messages and WhatsApps from 2015 probably don’t need to be kept, so spring clean your messages, and get yourself in the habit of deleting old groups you don’t use anymore.
  • Unsubscribe all: when you’re deleting emails from your inbox, take a minute to think about if you need to be subscribed to that mailing list at all. Save space, and the planet!
  • Face free day: Have a ‘video off’ day when you can; if you don’t need your camera on for meetings, occasionally turn it off to save data.
  • Step away from the phone: when watching TV or a streaming service put your phone away. Maybe even leave it in another room to resist the temptation to scroll as you watch. You’ll enjoy your show more and cut your carbon all in one simple move!
  • Auto play; off: Switch off the ‘auto play next episode’ function on your streaming services and use the handy ‘sleep timer’ on your devices if you listen to music or podcasts as you drift off. Your cat doesn’t need to hear 8 hours of True Crime or rainforest soundscapes!

Find out more about your data carbon footprint and how to develop more sustainable data habits via the IET website.


[1] Photo storage carbon footprint = 689kg CO2, average sized car driving 1674 miles = 600kg CO2





[6] For those who use these services

[8] Ofcom Media Nations 2021 report

[9] Based on an average petrol car


Notes to editors:

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About the research

The research was conducted by OnePoll from 11th to 14th October 2021 – surveying 2,000 UK adults aged between 18 – 65.  

About the IET

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External Communications Manager

Sophie Lockhart
Senior Communications Executive