Enough with the Knee-Jerk Dead Tree Hype


We don’t mean to single anyone out. Certainly Laura Montini isn’t alone as she flippantly tosses off the “going all digital is good for trees” mantra, which she did inan article last week in Inc.

Her article was actually about the benefits of reading on paper vs. digital, and she did a good job of citing research and making the case that readers of print media have better recall of what they’ve just read than digital.

It was just that one line, almost written as a throw-away, that we really need to talk about.

Is digital good for trees? Does reading on paper make you an environmental troglodyte? Or does your digital consumption actually weigh down your carbon footprint?

“There is growing recognition that digital media technology uses significant amounts of energy from coal fired power plants which are making a significant contribution to global warming,” writes Don Carli in PBS.org. “Greenpeace estimates that by 2020 data centers will demand more electricity than is currently demanded by France, Brazil, Canada, and Germany combined.

“What is less widely known is that mountaintop-removal coal mining is also a major cause of deforestation, biodiversity loss, and the pollution of over 1,200 miles of headwater streams in the United States. Digital media doesn’t grow on trees, but increased use of digital media is having a profoundly negative impact on our forests and the health of our rivers,” Carli continues.

We aren’t just throwing these quotes around to “defend” the paper industry, lest we be accused of the same kind of off-the-cuff remark that we find disturbing. The paper industry has its own challenges, as we work to minimize production waste, water usage and electricity consumption. Rather, we are urging consumers to really consider both sides of the debate and their own habits and requirements when making their media choices.

Consider one Swedish study that looked at the impact of reading the daily news in print, on a computer and on an e-reader.

“The study found that if you live someplace that produces its electricity similarly to the European average (that is, slightly greener overall than the U.S. average), and you spend just 10 minutes a day reading the news, then reading online or with an e-reader produces less of an environmental impact, measured in terms of carbon emissions,” according to the Omega Institute as quoted in Huffington Post.

“However, if you’re an avid reader who spends more than 30 minutes a day reading the news, the print edition results in a lower environmental impact than reading online (28 kilograms of CO2 per year, per person for print versus 35 kilograms per year, per person for online reading),” the article continues.

Another recent analysis of printed books verses e-books found that “the energy, water, and raw materials needed to make a single e-reader is equal to that of 40 to 50 books. In terms of the effect on the climate, the emissions created by a single e-reader are equal to roughly 100 books,” continues the Omega article. So if you read less than 100 books on your e-reader before upgrading your device, you’ve just defeated any environmental reasons for reading on a screen. Read 200 books and your energy consumption is now less than if you purchased those books in print.

Again, it’s not just about what we consume, but how and how often. Voracious readers may be doing the world a good turn on their Kindles, while casual readers would do better to buy those books in print. And much, of course, depends on the commitment that the companies that are producing these devices and these books have to sound resource and waste management.

Many leading US companies have recently backed away from their anti-paper green claims in light of the facts, and the move to digital is no longer considered a cut-and-dried environmental boon. Paper recycling is now at around 63%, and thanks in large part to paper companies and their commitment to reforestation, there are more acres of US forest and more trees now than 20 years ago.

Meanwhile, “between the years 2000 and 2013, the amount of electricity gobbled up by digital devices increased more than five-fold in the U.S., reaching an average of 800 kWh per year per household,” notes recent research from the Consumer Federation of America.

As consumers we are faced with myriad choices every day in how we purchase, consume and dispose of the content we create. Each choice has an environmental impact. Let’s stop playing fast and loose with the whole “green is digital” concept and truly understand the facts behind the industry.

More information on sustainability efforts in the printing industry can be found atFSC.org. Get educated and make informed decisions about the media you consume.