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Digital vs. Paper Environmental Footprints

Going paperless: Is it better for the environment?

In this age of digital media and communication, we are being encouraged to “go paperless.” Companies, such as those to whom we pay bills, are turning to paperless billing and online bill payment. In order to sustain readership and circulation, magazines and, especially, newspapers have digital editions that many of us read online or on our smartphones and tablets. Rather than buying and sending a printed paper greeting card for a birthday or other occasion, e-cards can be a quick, easy and paperless option – but they're not necessarily better for the environment.

We are being encouraged to believe that by reducing our use of paper, we are not only helping to preserve our natural resources, but are also being more environmentally conscientious and helping to reduce the greenhouse gases that are contributing to global warming and climate change. Is that really true?

Paper Carbon Footprint

Most of us are at the very least superficially aware of the impact of our paper usage. We use quite a lot of it, perhaps more than we need, especially when we print out digital files. We tend to think of our paper usage impact on two levels: (1) it is made from trees, a natural resource, which remove carbon dioxide from the air and emit oxygen back into the atmosphere, (2) used paper ends up in the waste stream, either going to be recycled or into a landfill. (To learn more about paper and paper recycling, click here.)

The manufacturing and use of paper does have an impact on the environment. There is no doubt about that, but surprisingly, not as much as we are led to believe. As a natural resource that has a positive impact on the environment, trees being cut down to make paper might be viewed negatively. However, most of the wood harvested in North America for the production of paper comes from sustainably managed forests.

Nevertheless, at every step of the way, carbon-producing energy is used – from the vehicles and tools used by the timber companies, to the truckers transporting the wood or finished paper, to the mills powered by electricity for manufacturing the paper, and even to the printers (both commercial and personal) that put words and images on the paper.

According to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), approximately 63 percent of the paper we use is actually recycled to produce new paper products. In the overall scheme of things, in 2016, the carbon footprint of paper and paper recycling added up to only about 0.5 percent of total carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S., per the EPA. That is relatively low. Why? Over the paper’s lifecycle, in addition to being recyclable, paper is made from a carbon-storing resource that is renewable, and renewable energy resources – wind, solar, biofuels and hydroelectric – are used by many of its manufacturers. So, is this a reason to “go paperless,” or are we being made to feel needlessly guilty for reading a physical newspaper, sending a birthday card, or paying bills received in the mail by writing and mailing a check?

Digital Carbon Footprint

There is no denying that we are in the “Age of Technology” and that digital devices – mobile phones, desktop and laptop computers, e-readers and tablets – are key tools we use everyday, in almost every way. We shop online, send and receive e-mail and text messages, read news and books, stream movies and television programs, view videos, listen to podcasts, share photos, talk to each other and so much more – all electronically. It all seems so effortless, and there is no physical part of all this exchange of communication (unless you print out a message onto paper) to pollute the environment. It’s all “data,” or so we think, but what does it take to really make all of this happen?

The transmission of all those messages, orders and other data seems to happen “magically” because we see no real physical evidence of it, except what appears on our screens. Nevertheless, what it does require is power and lots of it. All of this communication is transmitted over wires and cables to huge data centers with masses of computer servers that process, transmit and store all that data. In the process, these servers generate a lot of heat that requires the use of additional power to keep them cool and prevent overheating. Where does all that electricity to power and cool all those servers come from? Much of it comes from fossil fuel-burning (oil, gas, and coal) power plants, which emit carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It is estimated that there are some half a million or more data centers around the world, with each one requiring the amount of electricity equivalent to that of a medium-sized town. Overall, it is estimated that the transmission of all of our data contributes about four percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

While perhaps not impacting the carbon footprint of our digital use as much as the need for power, there is another element that factors into it. Many of our digital devices operate “wirelessly,” but that wireless communication eventually reaches routers and cell towers, which then move the data along wires and cables to the data centers. Whether run above or below ground, cables can also have a negative impact on the environment. Running cables over long distances above ground requires strings of transmission towers traversing the countryside and through forested areas, in which some of the trees will need to be cut down to accommodate not only the tower, but also access to the tower for maintenance. In more urban areas, trees often need to be trimmed of branches so as not to interfere with wires on poles along the streets, thus reducing their ability to convert CO2. Underground cables might jeopardize the root systems of urban trees when the ground is dug up to lay the cables, and eventually lead to their death or cause them to lose stability and fall over in a high wind.

Our use of digital technology continues to grow, thus potentially increasing the carbon emissions and adding to global warming, but it is not all bad news. Technology service providers, such as Google and others, are seeking ways to reduce their environmental impact, but they still have a long way to go. So, the next time you are encouraged to “go paperless,” do so for the convenience of it and not because it is better for the environment.

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