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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5 Ways to Go Green on Earth Day 2014

Angel Cat Flying The Planet Earth Flag Postcard by Paula ZimaThe 44th Earth Day falls inconveniently on Tuesday, April 22, 2014, a work day for most people. Below are 5 ideas for observing Earth Day on the day.

Make a phone call, send an email, write a letter, read, or watch a movie. Many of these actions can be completed in the course of your workday, during a break or at lunchtime.

Sign Up for Community Supported Agriculture

Buying locally grown food like fruits and vegetables lowers fossil fuel use and pollution by reducing the number of miles your food travels. Produce picked the day you buy or pick it up stays fresh longer and cuts down on food waste. For instance, a head of lettuce will stay fresh and crisp for two weeks in the fridge.

Nowadays many communities, large and small, are home to community supported agriculture (CSA) farms. A wide variety of options and payment plans make CSAs affordable for many people. Some will deliver to your home or even your office.

Organic Strawberries from Community Supported Agriculture FarmEarth Day Action: spring is the perfect time to sign up with a local CSA farm and start enjoying the fresh-picked seasonal produce. To find a CSA, look online at Eat Well Guide or LocalHarvest, ask around, or enter the name of your town and CSA program into your web browser. Once you find a CSA farm, call, email, or sign up online.

Extra Credit: sign up with an organic farm.

Write to an Elected Official

The first Earth Day in 1970 coincided with the beginning of the modern environmental movement. During the 1970s, Americans became aware of and outraged about air and water pollution, food safety issues, and wilderness degradation. Increasing public pressure led Congress to pass several pieces of landmark environmental legislation including establishing the EPA, the Clean Air and Water Acts, and the Endangered Species Act.

After years of inaction, I decided to make my voice heard by writing to my elected officials to let them know what is important to me and suggest actions I think they should take. Last year for Earth Day, I wrote a letter to President Obama about solar power. I’ll provide a link to this year’s Earth Day letter in my next post.

Woman Writing a Letter with a PenEarth Day Action: take a break at work and write a letter or send an email to one of your elected officials to share your opinions, concerns, or ideas on topics that matter to you.

Extra Credit: write about an environmental-related issue.

Make an Appointment with a Rooftop Solar Company

Renewable energy is clean and well, renewable. We need to get off burning fossil fuels for electricity and we can. Solar is one option.

The cost of solar panels has dropped dramatically which puts rooftop solar within reach of many homeowners and renters (renters talk to your landlord) who previously thought it was unaffordable. Your local solar company is up to speed on the purchase, lease, and other financing options available in your area as well as local, state, and federal tax incentives, which can be substantial.

Last March, we put 16 solar panels on our roof. Over the period of a year, we generated enough excess electricity to cover our use at night and on especially cloudy days, as well as to pay our share of transmission, distribution, public purpose programs, nuclear decommissioning, bonds, generation, and taxes.

By this time next year, you could be generating your own power, saving money, and contributing to the clean energy economy while reducing your own carbon footprint.

Author's Rooftop Solar PanelsEarth Day Action: if you know someone with solar panels, ask for a referral. If not, use your web browser to search for solar panel installers in your area. Some states have websites. Select a company then call them and schedule an appointment to have your roof evaluated for solar panels.

Extra Credit: ask a neighbor if they’d like to have a solar evaluation the same day as yours.

Read the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report

Chances are you’ve seen a headline, article, or post about the recent climate change assessment report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC is an international body of scientists who review and analyze thousands of climate change reports, peer-reviewed articles, white papers, documents, and tons of data. They then distil the information and prepare assessment reports for governmental policymakers (the people who determine our future by establishing regulations, setting policy, and passing or blocking legislation).

As citizens of Earth, we need to inform ourselves about climate change and what we can do about it. Let’s take advantage of the legwork done by the IPCC and read the reports ourselves or least the summaries.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change LogoEarth Day Action: the actual IPCC assessment reports are hefty and will require more than one day for reading. So on Earth Day read the IPCC summaries and perhaps watch a video or two. This is probably best done before or after work.

Extra Credit: send the IPCC links above to a friend or family member.

Go to Your Library, Check Out and Watch a Video about Climate Change

The two movies noted below are more than a few years old but deliver climate change information in a way anyone can relate to and understand.

I didn’t go see An Inconvenient Truth when it hit the movie theaters in 2006. Previews on TV made it seem like a doom and gloom story and I just didn’t want to hear it. A few years later, I realized pretending climate change wasn’t happening would not work so I rented the video. It is a powerful movie that everyone should see regardless of how you feel about Al Gore.

Recently, I checked out Burning the Future: Coal in America from my local library. This film is about blowing off the tops of mountains in West Virginia to obtain coal for coal-fired power plants. Viewers will see regular people taking a stand and fighting against the coal industry and ineffective government to save their homes and their children’s future. Everyone should watch this movie to be reminded of what it actually takes to turn the lights on.

New York Public Library with Splendor is the Word BannerEarth Day Action: check out one of these videos, or a climate change video of your choice, at your local library and watch it. This is probably an after work activity. However, during the workday, you can check your library’s online system to find and reserve a video. Don’t have a library card? Get one.

Extra Credit: invite family or friends to watch the video with you.

Have an Earth Day action idea of your own? Please share it in the comments section.

Reader Note – Angel Cat Image

I received the “Angel Cat Proudly Flying the Planet Earth Flag, Which Flies Above All Others” postcard, from Gail Johnson of the Johnson Framing Studio in San Luis Obispo, CA. The original painting “Peace Cat” is by Paula Zima. I fell in love with this postcard and keep it on my desk. This should become the official flag for Earth Day.

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