Paper versus Digital Media – Environmental Impact

Stack of Newspapers with Notebook Computer

Which is greener, paper books or ebooks, paper magazines and newspapers or their digital counterparts? Are your reading habits harming the planet?

Reading is a good thing, right? Is paper or pixels a more environmentally friendly way to read? The answer is, well, um, it is complicated. Making an apples-to-apples comparison of the environmental impact of paper versus digital media is difficult, if not impossible.

A paper book, magazine, or newspaper is a tangible item that you can pick up and hold while you are reading it. A digital book, magazine, or newspaper is an intangible virtual item. The thing that you touch or hold in your hand for reading is an electronic device like a desktop computer, notebook, tablet, e-reader, or smartphone. Unless you read on a uni-tasking e-reader, these devices do a lot more than providing reading material.

A direct comparison may not be feasible, however, you and I can learn about the environmental issues associated with paper and digital media and explore how we can green our own reading habits.

Paper and digital media do have some common environmental issues including:

  • Extracting materials, whether it is logging trees or mining minerals and metals, damages and pollutes the surrounding land and water harming wildlife and people.
  • Making paper and manufacturing electronic devices requires huge amounts of energy and water.
  • Transporting everything from raw materials to finished goods via fossil fuel powered trucks, ships, cars, and airplanes produces greenhouse gases and air pollution.
  • Manufacturing facilities, warehouses, retail stores, data centers, and libraries require energy and water to operate.
  • Throughout its life cycle, each product generates nontoxic and toxic waste, including during recycling.

To me, the top environmental issue associated with paper is deforestation and the worst environmental problem with electronic devices is e-waste.

Deforestation

Making paper requires trees, hundreds of millions of trees. Thousands of things are made of wood and paper so it is not just books, magazines, and newspapers contributing to destroying forests.

A forest is a complex ecosystem containing many different species of trees, plants, and animals all working together for their own benefit and giving us oxygen, water filtration, and beauty.

Industrial loggers clearcutting a forest
Industrial loggers clearcutting a forest

Industrial logging destroys the balance of forest ecosystems. The trees, plants, and animals that used to live in the forest are killed in the process, must flee the area if they can, or die out in the aftermath.

People living in or near devastated forests suffer unintended consequences like erosion, flooding, and water pollution. Walking through a forest that has been clearcut is a heartrending experience.

Paper companies point out that trees can be grown and are therefore a renewable resource. Technically, this is true. However, a tree plantation containing a specific type of tree planted for harvesting (perhaps on land that used to be a forest) does not replace a forest ecosystem.

E-Waste

At the end of their useful life, desktop computers, notebooks, tablets, e-readers, and smartphones contain both valuable materials that can be recycled and toxic materials that require special handling.

Recycling processes can recover valuable materials like gold, palladium, platinum, rhodium, ruthenium, selenium, iridium, indium, copper, nickel, and cobalt.

Other materials in electronic devices are toxic and need to be disposed of carefully including lead, mercury, cadmium, brominated flame retardants, antimony trioxide, polyvinyl chloride, and phthalates.

Unfortunately, our society places a higher value on replacing obsolete or broken electronic devices than on repairing or recycling them. We also do not include the harm caused to the environment or to people in the cost of goods and services, which keeps prices of new products low.

Child sitting among toxic e-waste
Child sitting among toxic e-waste

There is little financial incentive for recycling so the majority of unwanted and obsolete electronic devices end up as e-waste in landfills where they leach toxins into the soil, air, and water. Even worse, we ship tons of e-waste overseas where people, including children, recycle items by hand with no safety equipment.

Both paper products and electronic devices have significant environmental impacts.

You and I will probably continue reading and electronic devices are ubiquitous so what can we do? We can evaluate our reading materials and make more environmentally friendly choices.

Greening Your Reading Habits

Over the past several years I have been attempting to green my own reading habits. Here are a few examples and some thought starters.

Stop Subscribing

The thing about subscriptions is that they are easy to renew without giving much thought to it. Do unread newspapers wind up in your recycle bin on a regular basis? Are magazines stacking up on your end table waiting to be read? Perhaps it is a good time to let your subscription expire.

I gave up magazines when I realized I never seemed to get around to reading them. These days, I occasionally treat myself to a magazine and then pass it on.

Go Digital

Over 15.2 billion pounds of newspapers and 2.5 million pounds of magazines were generated in the United States in 2014. Newspapers and magazines have a limited shelf life so switching to digital versions is a green thing to do.

Nowadays, I subscribe to a daily digital newspaper that I read on my computer and a small local weekly paper that is delivered to my mailbox.

Sharing

If you are not ready to give up your paper newspaper or magazine, then consider sharing a subscription with a neighbor, friend, or coworker. If everyone did that, it would save an enormous number of trees.

Sharing paper books that you purchased by giving them to friends, donating them to a library, or selling them to a second-hand bookstore is an eco-friendly practice.

I am a book lover. During my lifetime I have bought hundreds of books and donated many to the library, but I still had a sizable collection. A year or so ago, it occurred to me that perhaps holding onto books that I am not going to re-read or use for reference was, well, um, selfish. So, now I am giving away and donating most of my books except for a few of my favorites.

Smart Shopping

If you switch to digital newspapers and magazines, first try reading them on an electronic device you already own. If you choose to purchase a new device, skip a uni-tasking e-reader and buy a multi-purpose piece of equipment that you can see yourself using for several years or more.

When shopping online for paper media or electronic devices, beware of shipping. Selecting expedited shipping (regardless of whether it is free or not) can hugely increase the carbon footprint of your purchase if it is shipped on an airplane.

Visit the Library

The greenest option is to not shop and visit your local library where you can read paper books, magazines, and newspapers to your heart’s content and use an electronic device to read many digital items, too.

National Library Week runs from April 9 to 15, 2017, so this is the perfect time to stop by and find out what is available at your local library.

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National Library Week 2014 – Lives Change @ Your Library

New York Public Library with the Splendor of the Word BannerHave you visited your local public library recently? National Library Week, April 13th-19th, 2014, is a good time to check it out, literally. Lives Change @ Your Library® is an apt theme.

Today, even non-readers will find plenty of interest at the library. In addition to the usual paper books, magazines, and newspapers, library goers will find movie DVDs, music CDs, e-books, Internet access, and job search services.

Today’s tech-savvy librarians assist people with finding what they’re looking for, answer questions on a wide variety of topics, and help people of all ages and skills navigate computers and the Internet.

Library services are available to everyone for free. Well, sort of. Public libraries are taxpayer funded institutions (mostly local and state tax dollars), so they are not free, per se. However, library patrons generally do not pay for services except things like late fees or to cover shipping costs for materials from reciprocating libraries.

“More than ever, libraries are community hubs, and it is the librarian who works to maintain a safe harbor for teens, a point of contact for the elderly, and a place to nurture lifelong learning for all.”

—Maureen Sullivan (former president, American Library Association)

Libraries are Green

Long before green became an environmental buzzword, libraries have been masters at the 3 R’s: reduce, reuse, and recycle.

Library Interior with Bookshelves and StairsLibraries practice reduction up front by purchasing one copy or sometimes more of an item for library patrons to share. These books, magazines, newspapers, DVDs, and CDs are read or viewed over and over again, indefinitely. Depending on the item, it may last for years, decades, or even longer.

When an item reaches the end of its useful life at the library, it may get a second life via donation or a library sale before eventually being recycled (yes, DVDs and CDs too).

By providing technology hubs, libraries enable a lot of different people to use the same equipment.

Libraries provide an ideal setting for people to explore and learn about green topics, such as climate change, green building, garbage, green living, and eco-friendly business practices, to name a few.

Public Library Facts

While reading about National Library Week and public libraries, I picked up a few interesting tidbits of information.

  • Library of Congress Reading RoomBenjamin Franklin helped found the first subscription library in 1731.2
  • The Library of Congress, founded in 1800 to serve the U.S. Congress, is the largest library in the world (by number of items).3
  • In 1883, the Peterborough, New Hampshire Town Library became the first free taxpayer supported library in the U.S. 2
  • Andrew Carnegie sometimes referred to as the “Patron Saint of Libraries”, funded construction of 1,679 U.S. libraries during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.4
  • In 2010, public libraries served 96.4% of the U.S. population via 8,957 libraries and 17,078 branches and bookmobiles.1
  • Public libraries circulated 2.46 billion materials in 2010.1
  • 53% of Americans polled in 2011 said they had visited a library or bookmobile in the past 12 months.1
  • People Using Computers at the Library62% of public libraries report they are the only source of free public access to computers and the Internet in their communities.1
  • Public libraries cost $35.81 per capita per year – about the cost of one hardcover book.5
  • More than 92% of public libraries offer services for job seekers.5

Visit Your Local Public Library and Find Out What’s New

Public libraries vary in size, accouterments, and services but they all have the same mission to connect people to reading and learning.

Soon after moving to a small town of about 6,000 people on the California Central Coast, I noticed the county library branch during a walk around town. It was housed in a tiny building (probably less than 2,500 square feet) and within easy walking distance of our house.

I went in and looked around which didn’t take long. I noticed a kid’s area, a section of DVDs and CDs, an area for large print books, a variety of magazines, and a couple of computer stations. The general bookshelves seemed to hold a small but respectable collection of books on a wide variety of subjects. Fiction books were housed in low 3-shelf bookcases with suggested books displayed on the top.

The library was doing a booming business with people looking for books, reading newspapers, typing away at the computers, perusing the digital media section, and checking out materials. I stepped up to the checkout desk and applied for a library card.

One of the librarians gave me the rundown on library hours and services. I learned that for $1.00 per item, I could request library materials from not only other county library branches but also branches in nearby counties that belonged to the regional cooperative library system. Cool. Odd, it had never occurred to me that I might able to borrow books beyond the local branch.

As it turned out, I am a frequent user of the cooperative library system. When I stumble across a book online or while reading another book or when someone recommends a book, I look for it on the online library system which gives a synopsis of the book, shows how many copies are in the system and where, and the dates checked out books are due back. I put it on my wishlist for future reference or make a request. When the book arrives at my branch, I receive an email then I go in pay a buck and check out the book.

Story Time at the LibraryAfter a decades-long fundraising effort spearheaded by the Friends of the Library group, our town raised enough money to purchase and outfit a new library (the county paid half) about twice as big as the old one. The new library opened in December with more space for books, digital media, and computer stations, comfy well-lit reading areas, and room for the Friends of the Library to accept and sell donated materials.

I learned that two-thirds of our residents are library cardholders and check out about 10,000 items a month, making our little library one of the busiest in the county.

So check out your own local public library. Chances are you’ll find something new, a great book to read, a movie DVD you’ve been wanting to watch, or a service you never knew existed.

References

  1. American Library Association – The State of America’s Libraries, 2013
  2. Wikipedia – Public Library
  3. Wikipedia – Library of Congress
  4. Carnegie Corporation of New York – Libraries
  5. American Library Association – Quotable Facts About America’s Libraries

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