Digital vs Printing
Which is really better for the environment: traditional direct-mail printing or email?
Nothingness Versus Substance
Many people think that emails have to be better for the environment; they are not perceived as real, not physically present, simply a message somewhere “in the clouds.” That may be true on the surface, but when you look deeper you find a different reality. Thirty or forty years ago, in response to the Clean Water and Air Act, as well as public pressure, the paper and pulp industries underwent a self-imposed clean-up. Today, over sixty percent of paper and pulp plants are run by renewable energy1. They have cleaned their water waste, they have eliminated their use of elemental chlorine. Now consider the energy consumed by that nonexistent email. Of course, it isn’t really a “message in the clouds”; it’s a message that exists, occupying space (admittedly an infinitesimal amount of space) on someone’s server, somewhere. And what brings that message to life is the electricity coursing through that space. Adding together all the spaces where all the seemingly nonexistent emails reside makes it easy to see why data centers use twice as much energy in this country as the paper, pulp, and printing industries combined Just data centers, not the vast number of computers where that email is destined to go. In addition to consuming twice as much energy, only 10% of that energy is from renewable sources2 and their consumption is growing exponentially. Obviously, a piece of paper exists; it has substance. But once it has been created and been printed upon, it no longer consumes any energy—it makes no difference if one person reads it or it is passed from cubicle to cubicle in a large office. In fact that piece of paper is a storehouse of potential, awaiting re-creation as some new, different paper product through recycling. The seeming nonexistent email, however, uses energy every time it is viewed. And many people leave their computers on all the time. One personal computer left on for five months uses as much energy as a single person’s paper and printing for the year3—and that’s without adding in the vast amounts consumed by the data centers.Forgetting where the energy comes from entirely, the very act of printing out an article news story online will most certainly shrink your carbon footprint. Instead of leaving your computer on, server running, keeping your article minimized all day– print your article, and read your article. Again, should you take even less than 45 minutes to read , your carbon footprint for that action will be significantly larger than printing all of your emails and news articles then closing out your browser and turning off your computer.
58.4% of paper is recycled in this country4. The remaining paper ends up in landfills, where it accounts for about 1.5% of the total material. It decomposes, creating no hazardous waste, and although it does no harm, we view it as a wasted resource, so we’re working to get more recycled. That 58.4 % is up from 56% just a year ago5. And every year we are recycling more. But only 10% of computers are getting recycled6. Consumer electronics today represent 5% of landfills7 and 70% of all toxic waste and heavy metals. And what components are in these castoff electronics? Cadmium, nickel, mercury, lead, dioxin—products known to poison, to damage the nervous system, and to cause cancer.
Paper is made from secondary forests. Most American paper comes from multicultural, organic sustainable forests that clean the water and the air. Clearing 15% to 25% every 20 years leaves the forests the same year after year because that’s the rate at which it grows, basically pruning the forest. Even the worst-case scenario—clear-cutting a section—creates meadows and underbrush, good places for song and migratory birds, and other small animals. And after 75 years it is impossible to tell which area was cut and which area was not, depending on the forest.In comparison, an area that is strip-mined or mountain side removed, the land becomes dead forever. Removing minerals from the earth is energy intensive and it destroys the land; it fouls the water and causes landslides. And let me repeat, the land is dead forever. Computers are built from minerals, those same minerals that are currently ending up in landfills.Mining has more direct human costs, too. Coltan, short for columbite-tantalite, is an ore essential for capacitors in almost every kind of electronic device, including computers. The struggle for control of the coltan resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been a significant factor in the civil war there, one of the deadliest wars of all time.
There are human benefits and costs associated with the manufacturing process as well. A job where there wasn’t one before is a wonderful thing. But that job should be safe, protected by environmental legislation like our Clean Water and Clean Air Act and regulated by watchdog agencies like OSHA. In some cases even the simplest change can improve working conditions, often with no economic impact to the company. For example, workers should be rotated through different aspects of the manufacturing process to prevent repetitive-stress injuries. An in-depth discussion of the problems in computer manufacturing, can be found in this recent New York Times article: Click To Read Further
So, back to the original question: which is really better for the environment, traditional direct-mail printing or email?
We’re not suggesting that everyone should, or even could, stop using computers; we use them, too. But rather than touting themselves as environmental saviors, the electronics industry should learn from the environmentally conscious steps the print industry has taken to transform itself. Direct mail, especially on paper from American-grown and manufactured pulp, supports sustainable forests and sustainable lives for American workers.Perhaps it is time to reconsider the real attributes of substance versus nothingness.