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Is paper-free really green? Part II

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Is paper-free really green? Part II

October 18, 2010 - 03:45
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Scotland, UK, Oct. 18, 2010 (RISI) -In Part II of the "Is paper-free really green" series of articles, Mandy Haggith, author and freelance environmental writer, asks why electronic is automatically seen as much more environmentally friendly than paper. Part I of the series can be readhere

Why does ‘e' seem green?

By comparison with paper, the digital world seems to generate endless positive perceptions as new, fast, easy, flexible and mobile. As part of their presentation of a green image, electronic information providers have been quick to highlight their products as ‘paper free'. The name choice for the forthcoming magazine website layout system, ‘Treesaver', is the latest example of how ‘soft copy' is presented as environmentally more friendly than ‘hard copy'.

The digital revolution, particularly the rise of mobile computing, has made ‘e' almost synonymous with ‘free'. The cost of virtual information is no longer paid on an item by item basis (though there are some exceptions, notably music), but largely through hardware capital and running costs. This shift in the financial model of information provision has huge implications for the paper industry. For many paper users, such as advertisers, the digital world enables them to make massive savings by shifting from production of multiple copies of their work to release of a single globally accessible copy.

In the case of online billing and finance, cost savings are combined with functional improvements. As motivation for finance companies to shift their systems away from paper, Bob Latham is convinced that these factors far outweigh any concerns about public image. ‘It's cheaper and reduces human error', he says. ‘It's often nothing to do with the environment.'

However, the finance industry has also tapped into people's desire to be environmentally-friendly by associating the shift from paper to online billing with ‘saving trees'. In the USA, a major campaign calledGo Paperless, Go Green', targeting finance company customers, used a study by Javelin Strategy and Research to promote environmental benefits resulting from a shift from paper to digital transactions. Even more significantly, a study by Harris Interactive found that 51% percent of customers who have shifted online said the environment was the number one reason why they use e-bills and online payments, and 72% cited reduction of paper waste and clutter as the main benefit. Finance companies have thus exploited a powerful synergy of cost savings and public perception.

False choices?

The public perceptions of the environmental benefits of digital alternatives to paper may soon begin to change, however, as some prominent voices are questioning the impacts of cyberspace. In the 1990s, green activists began saying that the internet ‘runs on coal', and now the ‘dirty internet' claim is back. Don Carli has recently highlighted the heavy dependence of digital providers in the USA on energy generated by coal from extremely damaging strip mining and mountain-top removal. ‘In addition to considering the way digital media can create new possibilities for a better world we also need to consider the less obvious impacts of the purchased energy, embodied energy, dark content and e-waste associated with the growing use of digital media,' he says. In addition, mobile phone and chip technology use rare minerals, the trade in which can be insidious.

A recent Greenpeace report has uncovered the huge energy footprint of the ‘cloud computing' data centres of social networking sites like Facebook, predicting that by 2020 the digital sector will produce 1034 million tonnes of CO2 emissions. The Climate Group and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative predicts carbon emissions from telecommunications providers will double over the next decade as uptake of broadband trebles to 900 million accounts, used by 4 billion personal computers.

E-book technologies have caused a recent flurry of ‘paper v digital' debates. When my book ‘Paper Trails: From Trees to Trash, the True Cost of Paper' was published in 2008 by Virgin Books, I was asked by the publisher's owner, Random House, to take part in a promotion of the e-book, published alongside the conventional book. I did so, on the proviso that I could ask questions, including ‘If an e-book reader breaks down, can it be recycled?' and more generally, ‘what are the lifecycle impacts of an e-book and its reader?' The answers to these questions are still completely unclear.

Even limiting the questions to the carbon footprint of e-book readers versus their conventional alternatives is complex, says Joshua Martin. ‘There have been a lot of different studies, but I haven't felt anything like a consensus. It is hard to find apples-to-apples comparison. What's certain is we need to be advancing sustainability simultaneously throughout both the digital and paper supply chain as rapidly as we can because neither is going away.' He agrees with most people in the paper industry that a simple ‘digital vs paper' alternative is a ‘false choice'.

One of the ways that sustainability issues can be addressed is by providing users of paper-based and digital services with clear accounts of the impacts of their purchasing choices. For example, global communications company Williams Lea produces an ‘environmental dashboard' for clients, which shows the forest, carbon, water and energy footprints of their paper procurement choices in print jobs, helping them to understand the environmental benefits of efficiencies and use of accredited papers. Similar dashboards are needed to make the impacts of digital information use completely transparent.

The direct mail sector demonstrates well how ‘paper or digital' is not a simple either-or choice. The sector is showing a strong migration from paper to digital marketing with, according to MediaWeek, an estimated increase in email campaigns of 15% in 2009. Yet printed campaigns are still popular and digital information is being used to enable much more personalised marketing that gets a far higher return. Bob Latham says, ‘Ironically it seems that there is real hope for paper's real value to be better appreciated as print is more and more cleverly used by media planners in sophisticated cross media campaigns, with digital and paper complimenting each other extremely effectively'. In other words, less volume means more value.

Future trends?

The early optimism of ‘e=green' is likely to reduce, as the environmental and ethical footprint of cyberspace becomes more widely known. Meanwhile, the paper industry can expect to benefit from the strides it has made towards sustainability, particularly in Europe and North America.

Influencing key people is vital. Bob Latham says, ‘To my mind the key people are those in the public sector and corporate buyers, and those people are getting much better at understanding the issues.'

Joshua Martin has this advice. ‘For the paper industry to really move into the 21stcentury, its approach needs to be around authentic responsibility and technical innovation that takes advantage of the real values of paper.'

Books epitomise these values. They include aesthetics: the smells and textures of books give sensual pleasure in ways no digital experience can emulate. Good books are shared and durable: libraries are among the most venerated institutions on earth, and books have a unique ability to allow people from the distant past to speak to us in the present. Picture a woman reading a story to her grandchild from an old book: what better way is there to illustrate love and the passing on of wisdom from generation to generation? But it may take more than images like this to regenerate the public's confidence that trees cut down to make paper do not all die in vain.

Part I in the "Is paper-free really green" series can be readhere

Mandy Haggith can be contacted