7 Tips for Dematerializing

We all know that our homes, lives and economies are becoming increasingly digital – with mountains of ‘physical stuff’ being increasingly replaced by ‘virtual stuff.

While there can certainly be environmental downsides to this (such as the energy and resources needed for device manufacture, and data energy footprint etc), there’s no doubt there are very significant environmental benefits – with far less paper, plastic and other materials being needed, processed, transported and ultimately thrown away.

A physical edition of a single national newspaper would use thousands of tons of processed paper, tons of ink and a sizable fleet of trucks to deliver it . . . and one day later it all would be sat in people’s rubbish bin, newsprint and colour suppliments alike, waiting to be landfilled, incinerated or just possibly recyled !

Replacing our collections of CDs and DVDs, shelves of books, racks of magazines and albums of photos with a collection of ones and zeros stored on computer memory will not only provide us with the benefits of easy use and sharing, but also declutter our homes and lives, and reduce our impact as consumers on the environment.

If you’re not fully digital yet, here are a few ideas how you can make the switch.


Set aside time to plan your digital storage system. Physical stuff like books, CDs etc doesn’t need much in the way of filing – just pick a shelf and line them up – but digital files all essentially look the same, and need a bit of organisation if you’re to be able to find and use them easily. Think about what you’re storing, where you will store them, naming and filing systems, tags or labels, how to transfer and share them to other devices or across the internet. There’s no doubt in the future the art of collecting, curating and organising a personal digital archive will be more important than ever.


Another key difference between shelves of physical stuff and digital is the potential vulnerability of electronic files – a crashed hard drive, lost laptop or dropped ipad could be the end of your music collection, financial records, or personal photos. There are all kinds of ways to develop a backup strategy, but broadly its a good idea to ensure as much as possible is backed-up, in as many places as possible, as often as possible. The cost of storage has fallen considerably in recent years, and cloud storage options are also increasingly affordable. A wide variety of backup software is also available, to automate the backup process – so there really is no excuse for not backing up your stuff.


Everyone has their preferences when in comes to devices to interact with their ‘digital stuff’ – desktops, laptops, smart phones, tablets and ipads, media streamers, ebook readers, games consoles, big screen TVs etc. There’s obviously no right or wrong choices, but a few things are worth considering: from an environmental and cost perspective it’s obviously not a good idea to be change or upgrade our devices too frequently, or to have devices sitting around unused for large periods of time. Consider buying second hand, or holding off on every single upgrade – if you’re gadget minded it’s easy to get swept up in the techno-hype surrounding new devices, focus on whether the improvements really warrant you buying a new device.


Once you’ve got a well organised digital system you can trust, and is secure, set about replacing as many of your incoming paper documents as possible. Ask for digital bank statements and utility bills, insurance details, warrantys, travel documents, manuals and instructions etc. Cancel hardcopy magazine subscriptions and sign-up for digital editions instead. Scan anything paper that does arrive to move it into your digital system. Build a habit of quickly and routinely adding documents to the right place in your filing system.


You’ve probably got a box, trunk, filing cabinet or cupboard full of paper documents of various types – birth certificates, qualifications, car details, house details, medical records, old financial documents etc. Many (thought obviously not all) can be scanned then shredded and destroyed. Work through systematically, scanning, naming and filing, either retaining or shredding the originals as appropriate.


Many of us keep hold of paper and other things, out of a sense of nostalgia, rather than utility – old school reports, scrapbooks, children’s art work etc. I’m quite a fan of nostalgia, but increasingly try to digitize these items, either by scanning them in, or by taking a photograph. As well as helping declutter your home, you’ll probably find things are easier to find, look at, share and store safely in a digital form. Various online digital scrapbooking groups and forums provide a large range of ideas for how digital nostalgia can be organised.


As more and more of our lives are digital, and we spend more and more time sat still, looking at screens as a result, it’s worth remembering that the ‘real’ world is still out there, and we should take care not to become too detached from it. Getting enough exercise, spending time in the company of others, nature and sunshine are good for us . . . try a screen free day a week, or have a ‘no screens after 11:00pm rule’.

Photo by Motoko Henusaki, via Flickr

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