Is Digital Media Greener than Paper & Print?

digital with paperGrowing up, my dad used to tell me that if I ate burnt toast my hair would get curly. I burnt a lot of toast with our ancient Sunbeam toaster, so I heard these words almost every morning at the breakfast table. And I believed him. Why not? My dad seemed a reliable source for good information so I didn’t see the need to fact-check him. No one told me differently and my sister’s hair was definitely looking curlier. So in my mind, it became a fact. (Until my best friend set me straight and I had to accept those Farrah Fawcett curls were not in my future.)

Have you heard something said so many times that you eventually take it for fact?

“Go paperless”, “Go Green” and “Save Trees” is a common theme these days as many corporations encourage their customer to switch to electronic transactions. Marketers use digital platforms of communications under the assumption that they are being more environmentally friendly. The bottoms of emails are riddled with the words “Don’t print this. Save a tree.” You hear it and see it enough times; you start to believe it as fact.

Here’s something we hear a lot and we’d like to be that friend that sets the record straight.

THE MYTH:
Electronic communication is more environmentally friendly than print and paper.
FACT:
Not necessarily. E-media also has environmental impacts.

In order to accurately assess the environmental impact of a product, we must look at its entire life cycle from how it is produced, used and disposed…cradle to grave, so to speak.

PRODUCTION
Computers, tablets and cell phones require the use of rare earth elements (REEs) that contain special properties that are crucial to devices. There are no substitutes for REEs and they are not a renewable source. Once they are gone, they are gone. The mining process to extract REEs from the earth consumes large amounts of fossil fuels and “devastates the environment”, according to Fred Bercovitch, conservation biologist at Kyoto University. Worldwide, close to 150,000 tons of REEs are used every year in the manufacture of electronic devices.

USAGE
The amount of electricity it takes to simply power our devices is staggering. Then consider all the data centers (and the Cloud) that are storing our data 24/7.

  • Data centers are the largest and fasted growing consumers of electricity in the United States. In 2013, U.S. data centers consumed an estimated 91 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity (that’s enough electricity to power all the households in New York City twice over.) Consumption is on-track to reach 140 billion kilowatt-hours by 2020.
  • By 2020, the Cloud will consume more energy than France, Germany, Canada and Brazil combined.

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DISPOSAL
Where do our computers and cell phones go after they die? Electronic waste (or e-waste) has become a major issue as these devices continue to pile up in landfills and generate hazardous toxins and gases, not to mention that plastic doesn’t easily decompose.

  • According to a report by the UNEP (United Nations Environmental Programme), the electronics industry generates 41 million tons of e-waste each year. It is forecasted to reach 50 million tons next year.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that most people obtain a new cell phone about every 18 months and that only 1 to 10 % of cell phones are recycled in the USA. The rest end up in landfills as electronic waste.

60-minutes aired a story on computer disposal and the what host, Scott Pelley, described as “the dirty little secrets of the electronic age.”


“We live in an era of constant demand for more and better electronic devices.” says Dr. Bercovitch. “That demand requires more REEs, as well as more electricity for both manufacture and use of the multiple devices. This results in an unseen, but not invisible, impact on the environment.”

To be clear, we are not asking you to ditch your devices and resort to paper use only (you would have to pry my iPhone from my Kung-Fu grip). And the paper manufacturing is not exempt from it own set of environmental impacts. But we do want to offer a perspective you may not be aware of and promote facts so you can make well informed and educated decisions. In the end, it’s not digital OR paper. It’s the wise use of both.

And maybe you can tell your dad about it at the breakfast table.

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