Which is better for the environment-using paper or a computer?

With the rise in popularity of mobile devices, such as smart phones, tablets, and e-readers, the question of whether it is better to read something on an electronic device or in print has become even more complicated. The answer is just as confounded. To truly know the environmental impact of a product, you need to assess it from production to disposal (which hopefully involves recycling!). Although a full environmental assessment of all options is not possible here, I will attempt to give an overview of the environmental impact of electronic devices and paper.

Paper

A piece of paper releases 0.03 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents (the amount of greenhouse gases in terms of carbon dioxide impact). If the paper has 100% recycled post-consumer content, it produces a lot less-0.017 pounds of CO2 equivalents. In terms of newspapers, 1 ton of newsprint kills 12 trees. The average recycled content for newspapers in the U.S. is only 35%. Creating wood pulp out of the trees is very energy-intensive and produces large amounts of pollution. In fact, the pulp industry is the third highest polluter in the U.S.

Farming trees specifically grown to produce paper also reduces biodiversity. Some tree species provide better quality paper, so we plant more of those and cut down old-growth trees to make space. This emits carbon dioxide into the air that had been stored for hundreds or thousands of years, and which these new trees can’t hope to recapture during their short lifespan. Pesticide and herbicide use is also a problem, since these are required to maintain the monoculture of tree farms.

The moral here is, if you are going to print something, please use recycled content paper, or better yet-reuse paper by printing on the blank side (though this strategy doesn’t really work for books).

Electronic devices

Alright, so everyone probably knew that making paper kills trees. But do you know what impact computers, e-readers and other mobile devices have on the environment?

Electronic devices are usually made out of plastic, which biodegrades extremely slowly, and also often contain rare metals like coltan that require mining. They also require a lot of energy to manufacture, ship and discard, and sometimes include toxic chemicals inside. Using a computer or other mobile device also requires a lot of electricity, which in the U.S. mostly comes from coal. The energy goes towards powering the device itself, but a significant amount also goes towards powering internet servers, even more so now that the use of “cloud computing” has increased in recent years. In terms of CO2 emissions, Apple has announced that using an iPad only releases 0.004 pounds of CO2 equivalents per hour and that over its lifetime (including manufacturing, transport and recycling), an iPad will produce 231 pounds of CO2 equivalent, which is the same as 7,700 sheets of regular paper or 13,600 sheets of recycled paper. In this comparison, the iPad comes out on top if you think of the number of pages you can read on an iPad during its lifetime without killing one tree.

However, International Paper,  a world-wide printing company, argues that the large energy consumption of devices such as the iPad makes paper a better choice. Powering a computer for five months requires the same amount of energy used to produce a year’s worth of paper for the average person. It also points out that paper has a much higher recycling rate in the U.S. (60%) compared to electronic devices (18%), which are instead often shipped to third-world countries where they contaminate landfills.

To sum up, the answer is complicated. If you read thousands of pages a year on your electronic device, then it might be better than printing thousands of pages. But then in four or five years (or probably sooner), you’ll have to buy the newest iPad, so what happens to the plastics and chemicals used in your original tablet? If you don’t read quite as many pages, then paper might be a good choice, but you would still be killing trees, encouraging biodiversity loss and increasing pollution from the pulp industry. Ultimately, whether to read print or electronic versions of your favorite newspaper or book is really a personal decision. If you already use your computer or tablet often, then also use it for reading. If you prefer the feel of a newspaper or book in your hand, then make sure to plant some trees.

Photos courtesy of Minnesota Council of Nonprofits and Building Green 

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