'Paperless' trend not without its own environmental impact

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Google and a number of other online businesses are pushing a "Paperless 2013" initiative to encourage less use of paper, and they do make some good points.

Despite decades of efforts by computer and software companies to move fingers away from the "print" button, the average office worker still uses 10,000 sheets of copy paper each year, according to the EPA.

Too much of that paper winds up in the landfill, and we certainly do encourage recycling as much paper as possible, especially newsprint. In 2010, 334 pounds of paper was recovered for each person living in the United States, and anything that will increase the percentage recovered, both nationally and locally, is probably a good idea.

The online companies have a vested interest, of course, promoting services that take the place of paper, such as paperless faxing, online storage and scanning products.

But it's not so simple, representatives of a printing trade group point out in a letter to the president of Google, saying the Internet giant is ignoring its own impact on the environment.

A letter from Martyn Eustace, director of Two Sides U.K., and Phil Riebel, president of Two Sides, U.S., made the following points:

* Google uses 2.3 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, enough to power 207,000 U.S. homes for a year, or about 41 Empire State buildings. Data centers use about 2 percent of all U.S. electricity each year. One hundred Google searches is equivalent to burning a 60-watt light bulb for 20 minutes, producing 20 grams of carbon dioxide, a little more than produced by watching a YouTube video for 100 minutes.

* When the computers used for those purposes are obsolete -- say in about 6 months -- what happened to them? Greenpeace says E-waste is now the fastest growing component in the municipal solid waste stream, and in Europe, e-waste is increasing at 3 to 5 percent a year, almost three times the total waste stream.

* Studies have reached the conclusion that document reading, if intended to be done more than once or by several people, may be more environmentally friendly if printed.

And, the printing industry points, out, more trees are grown than are harvested and the volume of trees growing on U.S. forest land has remained essentially the same for the last 100 years, at about 750 million acres, even though the U.S. population has tripled over the same period. In Europe, there is 30 percent more forest cover now than there was in 1950, and it is growing at the rate of 1.5 million soccer fields each year.

And, they note, paper is made from wood, a sustainable and renewable product that can help reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Most of the energy it takes to produce paper is renewable, they note, and more than 65 percent of the energy used to make pulp and paper in the United States originates from renewable biomass.

"So, before encouraging people to go paperless, and particularly inferring that electronic services are better for the environment, Google and others need to examine their own impacts and perhaps might reflect that, on balance, print and paper can be a sustainable way to communicate," the letter continued.

"In reality, we live in an increasingly digital world and electronic and paper-based communication coexist. Each has environmental impacts and it would be helpful, and more honest with consumers, if organizations would not try to differentiate their products and services on the basis of spurious and unattributed environmental claims."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: