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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America Recycles Day – Start at the Store

America Recycles DayAmerica Recycles Day 10 in the Bin Flyer on November 15, 2014 offers people an opportunity to drop off recyclable materials at collection points across the country.

In addition to dropping off cans, newspapers, and bottles, take advantage of events that allow you to safely dispose of recyclable stuff that requires special handling and should not be put in public or curbside recycling bins like batteries, Styrofoam™ packaging, fluorescent light bulbs, household hazardous waste, and electronics (e-waste).

I am a fan of recycling and an avid recycler so when I ran across America Recycles Day last year I decided to dig into its history and purpose and then wrote Every Day Should Be America Recycles Day.

Container and Packaging Recycling

For this year’s post, I decided to focus on containers and packaging, something everyone deals with on a daily basis. It seems like most things we buy come in some kind of container or packaging, sometimes multiple layers. As soon as we open or use the product, the container and packaging becomes waste unless we recycle it.

According to the EPA, at 75 million tons, containers and packaging accounted for a staggering 30% of all solid waste generated in the United States in 2012. 1

Beverage manufacturers, consumer product companies, and recycling industry representatives tout the container and packaging recycling figure of 51.5% as a recycling success story. That still leaves 48.5%, or over 36 million tons of steel, aluminum, glass, paper, plastic, and wood containers and packaging in landfills across the country. 1

Egrets Standing on Garbage in a Landfill

Making boxes, cans, bottles, pouches, canisters, bags, tubs, wrappings, sacks, and cartons consumes energy, water, resources and generates waste. So does collecting, transporting, sorting, and processing recyclable materials. Not all containers or packaging is recyclable.

Clearly, our first priority should be to reduce containers and packaging in general. Next, make sure recyclable items do not end up in landfills.

Recycling Starts at the Store

If you think about it recycling starts at the store. While shopping, we have an opportunity to look at a product’s container and packaging and consider its recyclability before we bring into our home.

Grocery shopping is a universal activity that has a significant impact on what goes into our recycle bins, from cereal boxes to shampoo bottles. Let’s look at some ideas for shopping with reducing and recycling in mind.

Pile of Single-use Plastic Bottles - Photo: WikipediaSkip It – some products are wasteful regardless of whether they come in a recyclable container or not. Leave these items on the shelf, like bottled water.

Less is Less – buy in bulk, it usually results in less packaging overall, is more cost effective, and does not necessarily involve buying a huge amount of something.

BYOB – putting three apples in a plastic produce bag and toting groceries home in single-use plastic bags has become a habit for many America shoppers, but it can easily be broken by bringing your own bags or in some cases not using a bag. It’s easier to convert than you may think.

Just Add Water – cut down on plastic bottles by purchasing concentrated cleaners and adding water at home. Spray bottles conveniently marked with fill lines help unhandy people like me pour in the correct amount of solution and water, no measuring needed. By eliminating unnecessary water, which adds bulk and weight, these products have the added benefit of reducing transportation carbon emissions.

Confusing Recycling Label Collage - Image: Recycle Across AmericaCheck the Code – materials like cardboard and glass are relatively easy to recognize and are highly recyclable. Many plastics are recyclable too, but not all. Look for the recycling symbol and become familiar with recycling codes and which plastics your recycling company accepts.

Lose the Laminates – some foods and drinks come in pouches and bags made with recyclable materials like aluminum and plastic, but once the materials are fused together, they cannot be separated for recycling. I cringe when I remember the drink pouches we used to buy for our kid’s lunches.

Watch Out for Wrappings – what is the difference between eating a handful of cookies directly out of a box or grabbing three 100-calorie individually wrapped bags of cookies out of a box? One option involves three times as much packaging. By the way, the first box of cookies probably costs less.

Cases of Soda Cans Stacked to Resemble American Flag - Photo: Daniel OinesMaterial Matters – it doesn’t make sense to use certain materials for disposable containers. For example, aluminum is valuable, recyclable, and has a huge environmental footprint. It is an important material for making cars, electronics, and building components. Think twice before putting a six-pack of single-use aluminum beverage cans in your cart.

If you are you already a savvy shopper, then celebrate America Recycles Day by safely disposing of your household hazardous waste or e-waste at a local event, reducing junk mail by getting off catalog mailing lists, or swinging by a local retailer and dropping off your used batteries or fluorescent light bulbs.

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References:

  1. U.S. EPA – Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2012

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