The carbon impact of everyday items
Published by Chris Butterworth
As we’ve spoken about before - and has been publicised on numerous occasions - the IT industry generates nearly 4% of the world’s global carbon emissions.
With the explosion of the industry, there are a range of technologies throughout our households which have an effect on our daily lives and daily carbon impact.
Each electrical item has an impact in 3 ways, aligning with stage of its life; manufacturing, usage and disposal. For this article, we’ll focus on usage, as manufacturing and disposing or recycling of electrical items is incredibly complex, so the impact can be difficult to measure.
With the number smart devices in a home doubling in the US within the past two years (according to Deloitte), and the climate crisis we are currently in, we need to look at the impact these devices have and how to lower that impact.
All of the emissions estimated here use 0.233 kg/kWh, as reported by the UK government.
To ensure that any device that doesn’t have mobile connectivity can access to the internet, we first need to look at the internet connection and the power usage of the router. BT reports their Smart Hub 2 routers have a power demand of 14.08W when actively used and 8.48W while idle. Let’s take into consideration two scenarios when it comes to internet usage; remote worker and non-remote worker.
When working remotely, internet access is pretty much always used and as such is only really idle when sleeping. If we used this as a basis, a router can be active for around 14 hours (8am - 10pm) and idle for 10 hours - routers take a long time to create a stable connection to the internet so it’s not recommended to be switched off at night. Using this we get 281.92Wh and 65.69g CO2 every day in the average remote worker’s home.
Most smart TVs have a G energy rating which is the worst rating for efficiency for electrical items in the UK. All of the smart TVs we looked at had two energy demand figures (measured in Watts) ranging from 65 to 86 for standard dynamic range and 105 to 128 for high dynamic range meaning a higher range of colours can be rendered which is used a lot within gaming. Focusing on the HDR, we get an average of 112.4W.
Using data from Ofcom, in 2021 we spent an average of around 5 hours and 40 minutes in front of the TV watching broadcast or streamed content. Using the average power demand, we get a total of 636.92Wh for the energy used, with emissions of 142g per day.
NRDC reports that high-end current generation consoles have energy demands of approximately 200. The European Commission has created eco-design legislation which is a voluntary agreement to get manufacturers to lower the energy consumption of the devices they make. As part of this they released a review study in 2019 for consoles which has energy demand of previous generations.
Looking at the constant battle between Microsoft and Sony, and their flagship consoles the Xbox and PlayStation respectively, it makes sense to focus on these.
The EC study lists power demands for the Xbox One and Xbox One X, with them being 106 and 108 respectively, showing not much difference between them. Although, the One X is tailored to higher resolutions with more powerful graphics, so using the One X, playing for 3 hours a day uses 324Wh electricity and generates 75g of emissions.
For the PlayStation, we’ll focus on the PlayStation 4 Pro which has an energy demand of 158.2 per hour of ultra-high-definition gameplay. Playing for 3 hours a day, same as the Xbox, would use 474Wh electricity and create 105.8g CO2.
Both measurements are for active gameplay, other activities such as navigating, streaming content or watching a DVD or Blu-Ray use less power (for the PS4 Pro, less than half).
It’s also worth noting that these consoles don’t work in solitude, so a TV (smart or otherwise) needs to be used which then adds to the overall emissions of that activity.
A console that doesn’t require a TV is the Nintendo Switch, which has an energy demand almost 10x lower than the PS4 Pro at 11.6, using 34.8Wh electricity and 8.1g carbon emissions for the same period of play. This comes at the sacrifice of graphics which tend to be a lot simpler for this console, although many gamers find them just as playable.
Smartphones and Tablets
While the environmental impact of smartphones and tablets has been made apparent with reports from lots of publications, the actual energy demand is quite low; 1.5kWh over the course of a year for an official iPhone charger according to ZDNet, emitting 301g of CO2.
Little numbers, big impact
While these numbers may be small, which might be misconstrued as a good thing, they really aren’t. These numbers are for a single user, not even a single household where multiple devices could be used at any given time.
If we take the TV which is usually a family activity; according to the ONS there are 27.8 million households in the UK and 95% of those have a TV (according to CLOSER, UCL Social Research Institute) meaning there are around 20.5 million TV’s.
If that TV is on for 3 hours a day (almost half of what Ofcom report and can compensate for smaller TVs) we’d get 6.91 TWh of energy usage which generates 1.5 million tons of CO2.
Watching in 4K uses a lot more energy than HD (almost double in some cases) and when streaming means you are downloading more data too - so watching in HD means your energy usage is halved.
The other side of this is to demand better of manufacturers, specifically to create products that have a lower energy demand. This is part of what the EC are trying to accomplish with their currently voluntary Ecodesign directive.
Another key aspect of electrical products, especially with smartphones, is planned or forced obsolescence; the idea that a product only lasts for a short period of time before needing to be replaced. This forces consumers to replace products prematurely and has led to some fairly prominent brands like Apple getting into legal trouble for slowing down older devices without letting users know, leading to them being disposed of (sometimes in landfills) after users think their devices have no value.
While some devices are recycled, reclaimed or repaired, a huge amount are simply destroyed or sent to landfill. While consumers aren’t the greatest, retailers can be so much worse. ITV has reported that retail giant Amazon sent millions of brand new or returned items to be destroyed and dumped at recycling centres or landfills. While they’ve started implementing policies to reduce this, it really shouldn’t have happened in the first place.
We must demand better from ourselves, and particularly our suppliers.