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The battle to be greener: paper vs digital media

A pad of paper vs a computer screen

Which one is greener?

We’ve all seen it, the message at the bottom of emails that makes us think we are doing good things for the environment “Please consider the environment before printing this email”. But are we doing good things for the environment? When I was working on my master’s degree many of the readings were provided in electronic format. Now I was working two jobs and could not sit at my computer for the long hours required to read these articles on the screen but I didn’t want to print them. So I purchased, get this, a PDA, which for those of you who have never heard of one is a really early precursor to today’s tablets, but with a lot less functionality.

At the time it was brilliant. I even got a little wireless keyboard and was able to read articles and write papers on the go without being weighed down by a stack of papers. Today the selection is huge, from ebook readers to truly portable laptops, the ones that don’t break your back when you try to carry them, but are we really doing the environment a favour when we use these devices over a printed piece of paper?

This is not a black and white question. There are many factors that need to be considered. First, lets look at the paper. So the issue associated with paper is deforestation right? Well, that is part of it, but you also need to consider all the processing that the paper is put through. There can be a lot of chemicals involved in making those crisp white sheets of paper crisp and white. This is why when you buy the eco line of most paper products they end up being just a little less white. You don’t notice it until you hold it up to another sheet though. At the same time, there is a lot of effort being done by the forestry industry to be more sustainable. And there are a few easy things for consumers to look for, like the Forest Stewardship Council logo that can help you tell whether you are using more sustainable sources. And don’t forget when you are doing that printing that you have a choice on how you print. Do you need to double space, could you use 1.5 or even single spacing instead? Could you make smaller margins? Can you double side? One of the ones that is so painful, is when you print off a batch of letters or something similar only to realize after the fact that there was a typo. I guarantee that if we had to type each copy on a typewriter that I would be more careful about my typos.

Now onto the electronics. This gets even messier because it is affected by where you live and where your power is from. I live in Alberta, the majority of my electricity is generated from burning fossil fuels. Therefore, using electricity is almost never the greener choice. While there have been some pretty significant environmental impacts from forestry, it hardly compares to the degradation caused by the oil sands and mountain top mining. Aside from the initial destruction, the processing and burning also contributes some pretty nasty chemicals into the environment.

So what is it about paper that makes us feel so virtuous when we choose not to print that email? I think that it relates to what we can see and touch. I can see the piece of paper that came from a tree. I can hold it in my hands and relate it to something else that is physical and part of my everyday experience. I can’t hold electricity. I can’t see it running through the wires in my house, or even how it gets to my house. And as we all know, out of sight, out of mind.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we should all be printing our emails, you have already had to turn on the computer to get them so just stay there, but perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to judge the person who walks into a meeting with a pen and pad of paper rather than their laptop.

There is one other point that this brings me to, the social aspect. You used to sit in meetings and discuss and listen, now at least half the attendees tend to be staring at the computer or their phone doing who knows what until it is their specific point in the meeting. Perhaps there was an opportunity to collaborate at some point but no one will ever know.

And I still can’t get my brain around not being able to easily share ebooks. This used to be a part of our social lives, purchase a book, if you like it you would lend it to someone else who you thought would enjoy it. It was a great way to connect, and save money and trees. Now, I buy the same books as the people around me. True, it might be better for the author, but then it might not be because I might have lent my book to someone who wouldn’t buy it, but ended up really enjoying it and would buy another book by the same author. In the meantime, I have put a few holds on books at the library, the one place I can still count on to lend me a paper book.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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