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.


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.


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.


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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IPCC Working Group III – Mitigation of Climate Change

The 3rd part of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report deals with mitigating climate change, making it less severe and painful for humans and other denizens of Earth.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is an international scientific body sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme and World Meteorological Organization. Hundreds of scientists and experts periodically review and evaluate the latest information on climate change and prepare a multi-part assessment report to aid global policymakers in understanding climate change, its potential effects, and possible adaptation and mitigation strategies.

IPCC Climate Change 2014: Climate Change Mitigation Report CoverOne can imagine how tricky it must be to create a report that is informative, easily understood, and does not offend anyone. Each word is carefully selected, reviewed, and approved. See below for an example from the Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change report.

IPCC finding: “Effective mitigation will not be achieved if individual agents advance their own interests independently.”

My interpretation: If every man acts for himself, game over.

To learn more about the IPCC and the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) contributions from Working Group I and II read Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – Report Central and IPCC Working Group II – Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability.

Degree of Certainty

IPCC reports use degree of certainty levels to qualify and quantify key findings based on type, amount, quality, and consistency of evidence, confidence in the validity of the finding, and the likelihood of some outcome having occurred or occurring in the future.

  • Available evidence: limited, medium, or robust
  • Degree of agreement: low, medium, or high
  • Level of confidence: very low, low, medium, high, or high
  • Likelihood of an outcome or result: virtually certain (99-100%), very likely (90-100%), likely (66-100%), about as likely as not (33-66%), unlikely (0-33%), very unlikely (8-10%), exceptionally unlikely (0-1%)

IPCC AR5 Working Group III Report

On April 13, 2014, the IPCC announced the release of Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change by Working Group III. This third installment of AR5 offers strategies and proposals for mitigating climate change between now and the year 2100 with the intent of limiting the increase in global mean temperature to 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit).

“Mitigation is a human intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases”.

Below are some highlights from the 33-page Summary for Policymakers (SPM) that I found particularly interesting, important, or thought provoking.

Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emission Facts and Trends
  • Anthropogenic (caused by humans) greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions grew on average by 2.2% per year from 2000 to 2010, almost double the yearly rate of 1.3% from 1970 to 2000.
  • Traffic Jam on Los Angeles FreewayCarbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from burning fossil fuels and industrial processes contributed 78% of the total GHG emission increase from 1970 to 2010.
  • In 2010, carbon dioxide accounted for the largest portion of GHG emissions (76%), followed by methane (16%), nitrous oxide (6.2%), and fluorinated gases (2.0%).
  • About half of cumulative anthropogenic CO2 emissions between 1750 and 2010 occurred in the last 40 years.
  • Increased use of coal in relation to other energy sources has reversed a long-standing trend of gradual decarbonization of the world’s energy supply.

Without additional efforts to reduce GHG emissions beyond those in place today, emissions growth is expected to persist driven by growth in global population and economic activities. Baseline scenarios, those without additional mitigation, result in global mean surface temperature increases in 2100 from 3.7 to 4.8°C compared to pre?industrial levels (median values; the range is 2.5°C to 7.8°C when including climate uncertainty). (high confidence)”

Long-term Mitigation Pathways

About 900 mitigation scenarios were reviewed. They covered a wide range of technological and behavioral options associated with various levels of mitigation. Some strategies have co-benefits like reducing pollution, improving food security, or saving money.

Mitigation scenarios in which it is likely that the temperature change caused by anthropogenic GHG emissions can be kept to less than 2°C relative to pre?industrial levels are characterized by atmospheric concentrations in 2100 of about 450 ppm CO2eq (high confidence).”

The low hanging fruit of mitigation solutions would reduce energy use and thus emissions while saving money. Here are a few examples:

  • Accelerating implementation of energy efficiency projects for transportation, buildings, and industry.
  • Changing eating habits, like eating less beef, and eliminating waste in the food chain.
  • Identifying and removing wasted energy and materials from industrial processes.

Mitigation strategies often involve technologies that already exist but may face challenges due to financial obstacles, public resistance, or opposition from industry. Take energy sources for instance.

  • Coal Power Plant with Piles of CoalClosing coal-fired power plants in favor of natural gas power plants would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but meet resistance from the coal industry and members of the public concerned about natural gas fracking.
  • Renewable energy sources (e.g. solar, wind, and hydro) are available for widespread deployment but need investment money to scale up and face opposition from the fossil fuel industry.
  • Nuclear power is a low-carbon mature energy source, however building new plants is exorbitantly expensive, the process results in radioactive waste, and there is considerable public resistance.

Some mitigation suggestions involve unproven technologies or require substantial governmental intervention.

  • Theoretically, carbon capture and storage could markedly reduce emissions but it is still a relatively untested technology and may not be a viable option.
  • New urban development projects need to be designed and built with climate Green 3D Dollar Signmitigation in mind, yet in many areas where growth is occurring, there is limited access to information and technical expertise, lack of a strong government and regulatory structure, and inadequate financial resources.
  • Economics usually plays a part in government policy decision making which may delay funding of critical mitigation projects because funds are directed elsewhere.

The IPCC report points out that uncertainties and model limitations exist meaning unexpected things may occur. This seems like a huge understatement. The Earth’s climate systems are incredibly complex and no one has a crystal ball.

Yet, uncertainty is not an excuse for inaction. So let’s get to work.

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