Digital hoarders, you know who you are. If you’re the kind of person who still can’t decide what to do with the 20,000 unread emails that have been accumulating in your Gmail inbox since 2008, there’s a fair chance you qualify.
Unfortunately, sorting through irrelevant emails has consequences that extend beyond an individual’s inbox hygiene. In 2010, the Guardian’s Green Living blog calculated that the average email accounts for roughly four grams of carbon dioxide emissions over the course of its lifetime. McAfee estimates that spam alone generates more than 22 million tons of carbon dioxide a year.
A Swedish vacuum cleaner company now says they’ve built a tool that can suck up and dispose of our digital detritus on its own. Last month, Electrolux, which recently acquired General Electric’s appliance division for a clean $3.3 billion, rolled out the “Word Wide Vac,” a software program that promises to scrub unruly inboxes.
The tool has three settings: small, medium, or large. “Small” identifies and deletes social and promotional emails (like the kind with “discount” in the subject line), while “large” tackles all of that plus emails dated back three years or earlier. (The “medium” setting also deletes emails older than three years, but not those sent from your account or your personal contacts’ accounts.) World Wide Vac uses the Gmail API to scour your email account, then generates an infographic showing you where all your trash came and went.
Electrolux CIO Marcus Claesson says that the company’s already trying to cut its own CO2 emissions in half by 2020. When Electrolux rolled out its latest physical vacuum cleaner, the Ultraflex, company executives figured it would be a good time to try something new. (A little extra publicity couldn’t hurt, either.)
“Cleaning is in our DNA and we’ve been making vacuum cleaners to clean people’s homes for 100 years,” Claesson writes–by email. “The Internet has become people’s second home, soon reaching 3 billion users. World Wide Vac is a way for us to contribute accordingly.”
The company says that more than 1,000 people–including Electrolux employees–have already downloaded the digital vacuum cleaner.
But before we get too excited about the prospect of a greener Gmail account, it’s also worth noting that spam actually isn’t the biggest email greenhouse gas emitter. By the Guardian’s calculations, the act of going through legitimate emails with cumbersome attachments taxes the most electricity and generates the most carbon dioxide. If our inboxes contain emails with attachments that are younger than three years-old, World Wide Vac simply isn’t tuned to eliminate them.
For now, weeding out those legitimate emails still requires manual dedication. A comprehensive fix might have to wait until we figure out how to read and retain messages from each other’s minds.