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:

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.

Next Page: How Green is Your Digital Media?