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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Author: Linda Poppenheimer

Linda researches and writes about environmental topics to share information, spark conversation, and convince people to take action to keep earth habitable for all. She believes our individual actions do matter—it all adds up.

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