Virtual Waste: Flowing from a data center near you

By: Reid Douglas


Inside a customer Data Suite in Union Station. Image: Global Access Point. Public Domain. 2008.

Virtual waste. It’s a type of trash that’s impossible to physically grasp, but is just a click away. From e-mails to search engines, the Internet is an ever-expanding hub for data. This information generated by and for billions of Internet users, requires massive warehouses called data centers that can host rows and rows of servers dedicated to storing mass data.[1] These data centers use massive amounts of energy and are the upstream beneficiaries of processes that contribute to climate change, resource extraction, and pollution. Thinking with virtual data demonstrates that reduction of material waste alone does not mean a reduction of an overall environmental footprint on this planet: the portrayal of the cloud as a ‘green’ space devoid of waste is incorrect. Many major technology corporations and entities in North America, including the United States government, fail to acknowledge and thus address the negative environmental impact Internet data centers are capable of. If sustainable solutions to powering data-centers aren’t implemented within the next decade, the landfill will be the least of our worries.

The half-a-trillion-dollar[2] data storage industry played a major part in moving towards a paperless society. However, few realize the environmental impacts virtual waste has. Cloud centers, “many of which can be seen from space, consume a tremendous amount of electricity; some consume the equivalent of nearly 180,000 homes.”[3] While the total number of data centers and exact electricity usage in the U.S. is unknown, estimates reported by the New York Times show that “digital warehouses use about 30 billion watts of electricity, roughly equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants… the United States account for one-quarter to one-third of that load.”[4] Beyond the US, this energy is being used by the close to 2.5 billion people online around the world (as of 2013), a number that has grown over 500% since the year 2000.[5] This expanding demand for online use requires ever more data centers.

The “cloud” concept is not a new term, but rather one that has resurfaced. Data centers have been necessary since the beginning of the Internet itself. However, a steady increase in users mirrors an increase in server capacity, which in turn requires ever more electricity usage. Today, ‘the cloud’ is frequently used as a popular advertising term for promoting virtual storage and most major IT companies are building their business around this idea. Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft, some of the largest technology companies in the world, are “rapidly expanding without adequate regard to the source of electricity, and rely heavily on dirty energy to power their clouds.”[6]

While corporate clouds serve to keep websites and search engines running 24 hours a day, the National Security Association’s Utah Data Center, the third largest on the planet, is used to monitor millions of people’s website history, social media, and mobile phone GPS-location data to prevent threats against the U.S., both domestic and foreign.[7] Unfortunately, neither the government nor private IT companies are required to share reports about how energy efficient their systems are. However, Greenpeace International released a study claiming that the fuel of choice of major corporations such as Apple, HP, IBM and Oracle is coal – which makes up over 40% of their energy usage. Using both estimates and disclosed statistics on specific companies’ power usage provided by Greenpeace International, it is reasonable to assume that both government and private sectors are not prioritizing alternate sustainable energy sources to power their data centers.[8]


Data Center In Utah, built by National Security Agency of the United States. Two pairs of Data Halls, administrative buildings between them. Each pair of data hall has two own power generation plants, one chiller plant and 6 cooling towers. Perimeter road is shown in black. Data Center has own power substation. Positions are drawn from OpenStreetMap map: File:OSM map of Utah Data Center of the NSA in Bluffdale Utah.png (CC-BY-SA 2.0) 2013.

A large portion of the energy consumed in data centers is from overheating prevention. Paying close attention to the “generation and redistribution of this heat connects media to the energy infrastructures on which they depend, and, in turn, to the intensification of global warming.”[9] One of the most recognized proposals for sustainable development of data centers that the government has yet to recognize are a series of updated cooling systems. The proposed solution uses liquid cooling as opposed to traditional air cooling. By transferring heat into liquid, the energy can be moved more efficiently, thus the data-center energy consumption decreases by up to 50%.[10] More importantly, if the proposed system were implemented, the collected (liquid) thermal energy could be used rather than wasted through synergies with district heating. Both the government and private IT companies should consider techniques to decrease energy use in order to enhance the green diligence of their data centers.

Professor Sharon Bender of University of Wollongong argues that the U.S. government will be one of the leading players in the future of sustainable development in information technology. Favoring a sustainable development framework, Bender argues that social and economic adjustment to technological innovation is crucial.[11] How can we persuade not only government officials, but also technology corporations across the globe to push for a cleaner cloud? As technology industries grow around the world, they can learn from the mistakes the U.S. has made in powering and cooling their data centers. In Europe, data centers are starting to be built closer to seas, rivers, and lakes in order to reduce the amount of energy needed to cool the server systems.[12] Yet this may lead to other forms of pollution, such as thermal pollution.

Despite the costs of data infrastructure, data is important, including for environmental change.  For instance, in early 2017, hundreds of people across the USA gathered to protect publicly available climate data in jeopardy of being deleted by the Trump administration.[13] Without reliable environmental data, the argument for clean energy alternatives, the ability for communities to make claims of pollution, and trends in greenhouse gas emitions that show whether interventions are working or not are impossible in public, government, and private forums.. To further complicate any assessment, no single government agency has the authority to track industry associated with Internet data storage and traffic. In fact, the federal government was unable to determine how much energy its own data centers consume, according to officials involved in a survey completed last year.[14]Thus, data is a core analytical case to look at issues of environment, waste, and discard in an information society. As we continue through the digital revolution, it is essential that we understand that virtual infrastructure has material roots that produces waste and uses resources.

Reid Douglas is a senior undergraduate student at Pitzer College in Claremont, California pursuing a double major in Science, Technology, Society (STS) and Spanish. He is currently focusing his studies on the Internet access and technology development in Cuba.

Annotated Bibliography

Bender, Sharon. “The Role of Technology in Sustainable Development.” Technology and Society 13, no. 4 (1994): 14-19.
Sharon Bender, environmental professor at the University of Wollongong has investigated numerous alternatives to environmental sustainability, including new technologies. Her work acknowledges that sustainable development relies on technological change, but questions whether the government is ready to readjust its technological innovation. She mentions the concept of a paradigm to technological development, acknowledging that technologies that play a role in the environment work within the same paradigm. We tend to work in directions where progress is possible, making alternative technologies less able to be adopted. Bender concludes that society cannot ignore the necessity to redesign our technological systems rather than continue to apply technological fixes that are only satisfactory in the long term.

Cook, Gary. How Clean is Your Cloud? Amsterdam: Greenpeace International, 2012. Electronic.
The authors and researchers at Greenpeace International investigate major information technology companies like Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, or Google and their investment in the nearly half a trillion-dollar industry of the cloud. While moving towards a paperless society does reduce physical waste, the authors argue that the data centers that power the cloud consume an equivalent to around 180,000 homes. Through data and analysis, Greenpeace attempts to align the rapid growth of the cloud and data centers to efforts in finding renewable energy to power their existing facilities. The data presented shows that the cloud is primarily powered through coal and nuclear energy, however some companies are working towards sustainable resources as we enter the age of technology.

Delforge, Pierre, “America’s Data Centers Are Wasting Huge Amounts of Energy.” National Resources Defense Council. (2014).
Founded in 1970 by a group of attorneys at the forefront of the environmental movement, the NRDC tackles the rise in energy waste through data centers. While they are the back-bone of this technology-driven country, the author demands alternative sources of energy consumption. In addition, Delforge, a previous energy and climate strategist for Hewlett-Packard’s sustainability group, acknowledges many different issues that slow the progress of energy efficient data centers. Issues like the cost of more efficient technology, failure to power-down unused servers, and the demand for more information storage are all obstacles for sustainability in storing information. His conclusions for energy reduction not only would help the environment, but also make a tremendous impact on the U.S. economy.

Domestic Surveillance National Data Warehouse. National Security Association. N.p., n.d.
Uploaded to the United States National Security Association’s website, the domestic surveillance directorate explains their reasoning for collecting public data. Servers such as websites, social media, mobile phone GPS-location data, and many others are monitored by the government for the safety of the country. The site speaks briefly about the national data center, and, under the Patriot act, the government can now have a storage system for all US citizens.

Glanz, James. “Power, Pollution and the Internet.” The New York Times. September 22, 2012,
Published in 2012, New York Times Author James Glanz focuses on the impact information data centers have both virtually and physically. Through interviews and statements from major IT companies like Facebook and Yahoo, Glanz attempts to set the scale of how much energy and data is consumed though the use of internet features like downloading, email, and streaming. Glanz is focused on the future, citing numerous references to the perpetual growth and development of the cloud. The internet will grow inevitably, new sources of energy to power it is what we need to focus on.

Hurst, Marcus. “How Polluting is the Internet?” CCCB LAB, October 7,2016, polluting-is-the-internet/
Hurst, founder of the online technology-focused publication Yorokobu, dives into the energy consumption of the internet. By stating the vast differences of previous estimates of internet energy use, Hurst acknowledges that it is difficult to calculate exact figures, which, in turn, makes it difficult to react to them. Published by the Center of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona, the digital magazine attempts to create a space where cultural research and alternative thinking is encouraged. The politics of the internet is a highly controversial realm, but Hurst attempts to acknowledge another side for the benefit of the environment.

Kahn, Amina. “Fearing climate change databases may be threatened in Trump era, UCLA scientists work to protect them.” Los Angeles Times, January 21, 2017,
UCLA professor Joan Donovan and others expressed concern for the potential ‘disappearance’ of key climate change data under the Trump administration. In turn, a workshop was held in UCLA to preserve and archive U.S. environmental data. The researchers make clear how critical data is to making policy, especially in the environmental sector. Major data centers, like the government, do have the right to do what they want with their information, but the efforts to preserve the data that is important to our country and our planet are very important.

Koomey, Jonathan. “Growth in data center electricity use 2005 to 2010.” Analytics Press (2011).
Consulting professor at Stanford University, Jonathan Koomey analyzes data of data center electricity usage. Using figures from sources like the EPA, Koomey demonstrates the mass growth in energy use the field of Information Technology has taken in a five-year period (2005-2010). However, the growth did not exceed as the EPA had predicted due to the economic crisis in 2008. In addition, the author acknowledges the efforts taken by major technology companies, like Google, to reduce their energy consumption.

Meijer, G. I. “Cooling Energy-Hungry Data Centers.” Science 328 no. 5976 (2010): 318-19.
This journal article covers the efforts towards designing new technology to promote more energy efficient data centers. Using data collected by sources like the EPA, the author credibly stands their ground on their claims of energy consumption in data centers. Author G. I. Meijer presents a feasible alternative, focusing on a proposed thermodynamic cooling design for the data centers to reduce overall energy consumption. If implemented, the author states a number of factors in which it would reduce the energy consumption and overall cost of powering these data centers.

“Privacy and Efficient Government: Proposals for a National Data Center.” Harvard Law Review 82, no. 2 (1968): 400–417.
This article published by the Harvard Law Review surfaces the idea of a national data center for the government. Through the collection and passing of a vast amount of information is inevitable, the author argues, and the creation of a national data center would take full advantage of the technological revolution that has come. This article was published 20 years before the internet became up and running, however it recognizes that similar problems are still prevalent in regards to specific data and privacy. Today, we have a Utah Data Center that the NSA uses for surveillance. The arguments brought up in the article are still relevant to a modern context of the collection and storage of data.

Starosielski, N. (2014). The materiality of media heat. International Journal of Communication8(5), 2504-2508.
Published in the International Journal of Communication, Nicole Starosielski of NYU analyses the presence of thermodynamics in the media. Temperature is used in not only figuratively, but literally as well. Heat as taken up material property, and is used While she acknowledges that the global internet (media) distribution is directly correlated to data centers which produce a tremendous amount of heat. Starosielski continues to argue that this heat is the greatest threat to communications systems. Published in 2014, the article is still very relevant and can speak about the data storage industry which continues to grow.

Velkova, J. (2016). Data that warms: Waste heat, infrastructural convergence and the computation traffic commodity. Big Data & Society3(2), 2053951716684144.
This journal entry offers another unique perspective on the waste that data centers produce. Velkova asks its audience what kind of issues, practices, modes of valorization and infrastructural interconnection arise when big data streams become the raw material that replaces older forms of energy supply in the urbanized world. In addition, the piece discusses the concerns of energy-efficient data centers outside of North America. By acknowledging Europe as a major technology hot-spot, Velkova provides a useful contrast to the United States.


[1] James Glanz, “Power, Pollution and the Internet.” The New York Times. September 22, 2012,

[2] Gary Cook, How Clean is Your Cloud? Amsterdam: (Greenpeace International, 2012) Electronic.

[3] Gary Cook, How Clean is Your Cloud?

[4] Glanz, “Power, Pollution and the Internet.”

[5] Pierre Delforge, “America’s Data Centers Are Wasting Huge Amounts of Energy,” National Resources Defense Council, (2014),

[6] Cook, How Clean is Your Cloud?

[7] Domestic Surveillance National Data Warehouse, National Security Association, N.p., n.d.

[8] Cook, How Clean is Your Cloud?

[9] Starosielski, “The materiality of media heat.” International Journal of Communication. 2505.

[10] G. I. Meijer, “Cooling Energy-Hungry Data Centers,” Science 328 no. 5976 (2010): 318,

[11] Sharon Beder, “The Role of Technology in Sustainable Development,” Technology and Society 13, no. 4 (1994):14,

[12] Velkova, “Data that warms: Waste heat, infrastructural convergence and the computation commodity.” Big Data & Society. 2016.

[13] EDGI,

[14] Glanz, “Power, Pollution and the Internet.”

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