Digital vs Paper – The jury’s out
One of the photographs we looked at during a recent NEBOSH Environmental Awareness at Work pilot course featured a pile of waste electronic circuit boards that had been dumped in the corner of a farmer’s field somewhere in south-east Asia. I’m pretty certain that the origin of this waste was discarded computers that had been collected for recycling in the USA. This prompted a discussion in the class not only about the probity of many recycling schemes but also about the significant quantity of resources that we use in making electronic devices.
I was reminded of this when my latest electricity bill landed on my doormat and exhorted me to: ‘Help us to help the environment – go paperless.’ The automatic assumption here seems to be that digital is inherently ‘environmentally friendly’, whereas anything that involves cutting down trees – including making paper – must be very bad indeed.
Now, I have a feeling that the real reason that my electricity supplier wants me to pay my bills over the Internet is to help reduce its admin costs, rather than save the planet. But putting my natural cynicism to one side, it’s worth examining some of the facts behind the assumption that digital must be better for the environment than paper.
There’s no denying that paper uses trees as the primary raw material. But let’s not forget that trees are a renewable resource: forests can be managed sustainably, and many are. Many paper and publishing companies have a commendable track record in promoting sustainable forestry, as well as measuring and reporting on the other environmental issues associated with the life-cycle of their products. Guardian Media Group (publishers of the Guardian and the Observer) and Trinity Mirror (publishers of the The Mirror and Sunday Mirror) both report on how much of their paper is made from sustainably produced timber (certified by established schemes such as the Forest Stewardship Council), or is recycled. Both companies also report on their carbon footprints and other environmental impacts in some detail.
This is not to claim that the paper and print industry is perfect. But it’s not hard to find publicly available environmental performance data for this sector, and many of the leading companies have long-standing environmental improvement programmes.
But finding any meaningful environmental performance data about the digital sector is a whole lot harder.
Does this mean that the explosion in the use of digital products over the Internet that we have witnessed over the past 20 years really does have little environmental impact? Or is it simply that the industry really doesn’t want anybody to look at its environmental footprint too closely?
Well, a joint initiative of the universities of Bristol and Surrey has produced a rare example of quality research into the environmental impacts of online media. Researchers on the Sympact project have been attempting to analyse exactly what happens when you click on a website button and to quantify the associated environmental impacts. The complexity of digital systems means this is no easy feat. In a nutshell, when you click on that button, requests are sent from your computer, or smart phone, to a number of different server computers, which could be based anywhere in the world and which build up the various elements of the web page (text, pictures, adverts, etc). These electronic requests are sent backwards and forwards via your Wi-Fi modem or phone network, to yet more servers operated by your Internet service provider and others that are embedded in the Internet infrastructure.
All of this equipment uses electricity, which contributes to greenhouse-gas emissions. The more features that are built into the web page, the more clicks you make and the more energy gets used. And don’t let’s forget the oil, minerals, metals and energy used to manufacture all of the equipment that’s involved in this complex chain.
So, the environmental impacts of digital are insignificant? I doubt it. Guardian Media Group, for example, has used the Sympact model to estimate that, in 2013, digital operations accounted for 17 per cent of its total carbon emissions.
There are encouraging signs that the giants of the digital world, such as Google, are finally waking up to their environmental responsibilities – see, for example: http://www.google.co.uk/green But they have a long way to go to get their environmental programmes up to the standard of more traditional industries.
As to whether digital really is better for the environment than print and paper – well, as far as I’m concerned, the jury’s definitely still out.
Dr Richard Dalley is a Director of the sustainability Consultancy Fairport(International) Ltd.