Is Going Paperless Really Greener

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Is Going Paperless Really Greener?

Thanks to Megan Halpern over at Melville House (MobyLives) for her post challenging the idea that digital media is a necessarily “greener” alternative to paper. Halpern points to an important article by Don Carli at PBS MediaShift, which calls the choice between paper and e-media a “false dilemma.”

As Carli explains, “going paperless” (with our bills, with our books) may feel like a great leap toward reducing our carbon footprint because the evidence of our consumption disappears, but the environmental benefits of digital media are as-of-yet largely illusive:

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.

Carli’s article addresses the monumental energy demands of digital media technology, much of which are met in the United States by coal-fired power plants that contribute significantly to deforestation, biodiversity loss, and pollution. Consider these sobering statistics:

America’s adoption of networked broadband digital media and “cloud-based” alternatives to print 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.
And here’s another compelling reality check, which Carli offers in response to a reader comment (the article has sparked a lively debate):

The EPA reports that electronic devices are the largest and fastest growing category of toxic waste in our landfills. According to the US EPA, about 70% of the toxic heavy metals found in landfills come from e-waste.
It’s important to note that Carli is not coming down on the side of either paper or digital media. Rather he is cautioning us to become better informed about our media choices and not to be lulled into a state of complacency by the “save trees” rhetoric that many proponents of digital media have embraced.

Erin Brown

Thomas Riggs & Company

Missoula, Montana; Nice, France

From Thomas Riggs & Co. Blog: www.thomasriggs.net/blog