Material and Energy Flows and Environmental Impacts of the Internet in Switzerland


  • Esther Müller,

    Corresponding author
    • Address correspondence to: Esther Müller, Technology and Society Laboratory, Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa), Lerchenfeldstrasse 5, 9014 St. Gallen, Switzerland. Email: Web:

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  • Rolf Widmer,

  • Vlad C. Coroama,

  • Amélie Orthlieb


The Internet leads to material and energy consumption as well as various environmental impacts on both the regional and global scale. Yet, assessments of the Internet's energy consumption and resulting greenhouse gas emissions are still rare, and assessments of material flows and further environmental impacts are virtually non-existent. This article investigates material flows, the direct energy consumption during the use phase, as well as environmental impacts linked to the service, “Internet in Switzerland.” In our model, the service, Internet in Switzerland, is divided into various Internet participant categories. All devices used to access or provide Internet services are merged in a limited number of equipment families and, as such, included in an inventory of the existing infrastructure (stock). Based on this inventory, a material flow analysis (MFA) is performed, which includes the current stock as well as flows resulting from growth and disposal. The direct energy consumption for the operation of the infrastructure is quantified. Environmental impacts are calculated with a life cycle assessment approach, using the ecoinvent database and the software, SimaPro, applying four different methods. The MFA results in a 2009 stock of 98,100 tonnes. Approximately 4,130 gigawatt hours per year, or 7% of the total Swiss electricity consumption, were used in 2009 to operate the Swiss infrastructure. The environmental impacts caused during the production and use phases vary significantly depending on the assessment method chosen. The disposal phase had mainly positive impacts as a result of material recovery.