Going Paperless: Not as Green as You May Think

Going Paperless: Not as Green as You May Think

Feelings of guilt and concern are on the rise about the use of paper and its alleged impact on the fate of trees and the environment. Are these feelings justified? Nothing captures the essence of these feelings more vividly than the signature line appearing at the foot of more and more emails:

tree  icon"Please consider the environment before printing this email."

This seemingly well-intentioned plea suggests that digital communication is greener than paper based communication. But is it? If your goal is to save trees or do something good for the environment, the choice to go paperless is not as green or simple as some would like you to think.

Could our increased reliance on consumer electronics and cloud-based computing infrastructure be more destructive to the environment than paper-based communication media? The short answer is yes, but there is a longer answer as well:

{related_content}Business, government and day-to-day life depend on both print and digital media to a far greater extent than is commonly realized... but neither is without its pluses and its minuses. There is no question that print media can and must do a better job of managing the sustainability of its supply chains and waste streams, but it’s a misguided notion to assume that digital media is categorically greener.

Print may not be as bad as you think and digital media may be worse than you know. It is possible for paperless communication to have a smaller environmental impact than print, but all too often proponents of digital media and paperless communication fail to provide credible evidence to support their claims.

Paperless appeals tend to use emotionally charged rhetoric to confront consumers with a false dilemma: "By using paper and print media you are knowingly degrading the environment, destroying forests and/or killing trees." They play on the primordial human affection for trees to make us feel guilty or hypocritical by suggesting that the use of paper-based media despoiling nature and killing trees. In effect, the forced choice they present is:

"Go paperless or feel like a guilty hypocrite who kills trees." timber clip art

This article does not make a case that print is categorically preferable to digital media. Rather, it presents evidence that our digital media choices can have significant unintended environmental consequences. It challenges consumers to look beyond the rhetoric to the hidden environmental aspects and impacts of BOTH print and digital media so they can make informed decisions.

Please take a few minutes to read the rest of this article and post your comments, questions and suggestions. If you find the article thought provoking you can learn more by visiting ISC’s website.

Does Print Kill Trees or Grow Trees?

Proponents of going paperless have waged an effective rhetorical assault on paper-based media that selectively uses “facts” to depict digital media as green and print media as a major cause of deforestation, despite the fact that the ravenous energy demands of cell phones, game consoles, computers, telecommunication networks and data-centers can be linked to some of the most egregious deforestation, environmental destruction and human costs in the United States.

In response to the paperless onslaught, the Print Grows Trees campaign recently launched by the Printing & Graphics Association MidAtlantic challenges the widely held belief that by using less paper trees will be saved, and makes the case that demand for responsibly sourced print media actually helps to grow trees and keep our forests from being sold for development. One of the questions they ask is “Does Mountaintop Removal Grow Trees?”

Digital Deforestation?Mountaintop removal

The fact is that neither print nor digital media supply chains are sustainable as currently configured, but until recently paper-based media got most of the blame for deforestation and pollution and digital media's dependence on coal-powered electricity went largely unreported. However, there is growing recognition that digital media technology uses significant amounts of energy from coal-fired power plants making a significant contribution to global warming. What is less widely known is that mountaintop-removal coal mining is also a major cause of deforestation, biodiversity loss, and the pollution of over 1,500 miles of headwater streams in the United States.

There is significant evidence that our growing preference for digital media is having a profoundly negative impact on our forests and the health of our rivers. One of the more significant direct causes of deforestation in the United States is mountaintop-removal coal mining in the states of West Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina. Computers, cellular networks and data centers are connected to the destruction of over 600 square miles of forest in the U.S. because of their ravenous consumption of electricity. Greenpeace estimates that by 2020 data centers will demand more electricity than is currently demanded by France, Brazil, Canada, and Germany combined.

America's adoption of networked broadband digital media and "cloud-based" alternatives to print media are driving record levels of energy consumption. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the electricity consumed by data centers in the United States doubled from 2000 to 2006, reaching more than 60 billion kilowatt hours per year, roughly equal to the amount of electricity used by 559,608 homes in one year. According to the EPA that number could double again by 2011.

Chances are that the electricity flowing through your digital media devices and their servers is linked to mountaintop-removal coal from the Appalachian Mountains. The Southern Appalachian forest region of the U.S. is responsible for 23 percent of all coal production in the United States and 57 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S. comes from coal -- including the rapidly growing power consumed by many U.S. data centers, networks and consumer electronic devices.

How Green is Your Digital Media?

To find out how much of the energy you use comes from mountaintop coal you can visit What's My Connection to Mountaintop Removal? -- an interactive tool built by the non-profit organization Appalachian Voices. Entering your ZIP code allows you to see if the electricity you are buying came from a coal mine employing mountaintop removal. The image below shows the link between mountaintop removal and the energy provided to Los Angeles by Southern California Edison Co.

If you thought you were saving forests and protecting the environment by going paperless … think again. The real dilemma you face is that you may be doing more to cause environmental degradation and deforestation by going paperless than you think, and making responsible choices requires informed decisions and rational tradeoffs.

Coal-powered digital media is destructive to the environment in many ways beyond deforestation. Coal fired power plants are responsible for 93 percent of the sulfur dioxide and 80 percent of the nitrogen oxide emissions generated by the electric utility industry. These emissions cause acid rain that is destroying red spruce forests in the Northeast and Appalachia, and killing brook trout and other fish species in the Adirondacks, upper Midwest and Rocky Mountains.

According to a paper published in the journal Science, researchers found that recent scientific studies showed mountaintop coal mining does irreparable environmental harm. The researchers said their analysis of the latest data found that such mining destroys extensive tracts of deciduous forests while also hurting fish and plant life.

The widespread practice of mountaintop removal has been described as "strip mining on steroids" in which forests are clear-cut and topsoil is scraped away. Next, explosives up to 100 times as strong as ones that tore open the Oklahoma City Federal building blast up to 800 feet off the mountaintops and then dump tons of "overburden" -- the former mountaintops -- into the narrow adjacent valleys, thereby creating "valley fills."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that mountaintop removal's destruction of West Virginia's forests buried over 1,500 miles of biologically crucial Appalachian headwaters streams, disrupted key nesting habitat for migrant bird populations and decreased migratory bird populations throughout the northeast United States. The Office of Surface Mining reports that more than 1 million acres of land in northern and central Appalachia were undergoing active mining operations as of 2004. In some areas of West Virginia, more than 25 percent of the land surface is under permit for current or future mountaintop removal.

The Power of Change

It's somewhat ironic that print media and the paper-making industry are so often targeted for killing trees while digital media is so often characterized as the greener environmentally friendly alternative. While its record is by no means perfect, the North American forest products industry has made great strides in the adoption of sustainable forestry and environmental performance certification practices. In addition, the majority of the U.S. paper industry's power and electricity needs are derived from renewable biomass that is sourced from sustainably managed forests.

Getting rid of the paper and printing industries is not the solution, transforming them is. Over the next five to 10 years, we need to transition from making paper in outmoded paper mills built by our grandparents to producing paper as well as renewable energy fuels, chemicals and pharmaceutical feedstocks in a new generation of integrated biorefineries. Likewise, we need to transition from printing methods that employ wasteful and inefficient mass production to those which employ leaner, greener digital printing and printed electronics manufacturing that support mass customization and dematerialization.

Forest biomass can provide valuable baseload capacity for more intermittent renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar. When you purchase paper or digital media, one of the factors to consider is how the brands you choose are supporting the development of renewable energy projects that employ recovered waste paper and sustainably grown and harvested biomass.

If you care about the environment and the health of forests you should become more informed about the energy sources used by both digital and print media. Research recently published by Bell Labs concluded that today's Information and Communication Technology (ICT) networks have the potential to be 10,000 times more efficient than they are today. In fact, they can also be powered by forest bio-refineries that sustainably produce energy, biofuels, polymers, and paper with renewable forest biomass.

The Unseen Impacts of Digital Media
 
Just because we cannot see something doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. While paper mills emit visible plumes of steam and waste paper can pile up visibly in our homes and businesses, the invisible "embodied energy" or "grey energy" used to manufacture digital technologies and the toxic e-waste associated with electronics are largely out of sight and out of mind, but their impacts can be profound. According to the UNEP report “Recycling -- From E-Waste to Resources,” global e-waste generation is growing by about 40 million tons a year.

According to MIT researcher Timothy Gutowski (as quoted in Low-Tech Magazine), manufacturing a one kilogram plastic or metal part requires as much electricity as operating a flat screen television for 1 to 10 hours. And the energy requirements of semiconductor manufacturing techniques are much higher than that, up to 6 orders of magnitude (that's 10 raised to the 6th power) above those of conventional manufacturing processes. In addition to considering the way digital media can create new possibilities for a better world we also need to consider the less obvious impacts of the purchased energy, embodied energy, dark content and e-waste associated with the growing use of digital media.

Informed Choices Save Trees

Centuries ago the widespread adoption of paper and printing resulted in a spread of literacy that ended the dark ages, spawned a renaissance and changed our world for the better. Despite these advances, our environment now faces challenges on many fronts that call for a new literacy about the state of the environment and the "hidden" lifecycle impacts of the media choices we make. The widespread adoption of sustainable print and digital media supply chains can change our world again and help us to restore our environment. These are important issues that can and should be addressed through a fact-based dialogue about where consumers can find credible information that will enable them to make informed decisions about their media choices.

Business, government and society need the many benefits that digital media and information technology can provide, but we also need to make efforts to understand the lifecycle impacts and unintended consequences of our decisions.

Standards-Based Lifecycle Comparisons

If we allow ourselves to be misled by false dilemmas or deceived into making unsustainable choices, distal concerns about destruction of the environment and the decline our forests will soon become a harsh and uncomfortable reality. Instead, ask the next companies you buy paper, printed media, hosting services or electronic devices from to provide you with an Environmental Product Declaration that is based a standards-based lifecycle analysis. If they can’t provide you with proof that their green claims can be verified, you might like to write a letter to the FTC asking them to enforce the green marketing guidelines that require environmental marketing claims to be substantiated.

Don Carli is senior research fellow with the nonprofit Institute for Sustainable Communication (ISC), where he is director of The Sustainable Advertising Partnership. You can follow him on Twitter @dcarli.  His white paper on this topic, "Print vs. Digital Media: False Dilemmas and Forced Choices," is available at ISC.

Top image CC licensed by Okko Pyykkö.