Digital may not be as eco-friendly as we think

The debate on whether or not going green means going paperless is still a hot one. While digitizing much of our once-printed media saves on tree pulp, it doesn’t necessarily save trees. A new article from GreenBiz calls into question just how much more environmentally friendly – if at all – our digital world is over our printed one and if it actually leads towards more deforestation. Highlighting how the talk about digital being an eco-friendly alternative for paper is all too often just empty chatter, digital media is shown to be just as guilty of killing trees.


GreenBiz writes, “[A]ll too often proponents of digital media and paperless communication fail to provide credible evidence to support their claims.”

The fact is, while digital media like e-books relieves us of the immediate awareness of the resources we’re consuming (we are no long literally holding a dead, processed tree in our hands), it doesn’t relieve us of the fact that we are still sucking up natural resources – and a lot of them – in order to read that very same novel.

GreenBiz focuses in on the rhetoric surrounding digital media, and shows that both print and digital have consequences such that messages like “Think of the trees before you print this email” does not make the digital version greener than a printed version. Rather, an email printed on a piece of paper from sustainably sourced wood can help keep areas covered in trees raised for the papermills, whereas reading the same email online could require using power sourced from mountaintop-removal coal-mining.

Such are the pros and cons we have to consider when trying to decide when paper or digital is more environmentally friendly. Often, it’s neither.

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.

While most of us know in the back of our heads that digitizing everything doesn’t mean we’re “greening” our media, to see the numbers in front of our faces is still sobering. The realization typically happens whenever a new technology really takes off. Last year when the e-paper market really started to find footing, it reminded us that now that the technology has arrived, we need to be extra careful in how we utilize it. Unfortunately, so far that has meant a rush of e-readers onto the market, which will barely have time to find homes before being replaced by newer tablet devices.

Digital is not always greener.

GreenBiz states, “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.”

The article presents some interesting numbers and fresh angles to the debate over paper or paperless, and is well worth reading through in its entirety.

Via Treehugger