Statistics published on the website of the University of Southern Indiana say that:
● Americans use about 680 pounds of paper per person, per year.
This amounts to about 85,000,000 tons of paper or 2,000,000,000 trees.
● The average American household throws away 13,000 pieces of paper (around 1 billion trees in total in USA) each year. Most in the form of packaging and junk mail.
With statistics like these, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that using paper is bad and going paperless is good. But is it really that simple? Stop using paper = save the planet?
I’ve often wondered what difference being paperless makes to the health of the environment, so I decided to look into it. It turns out it’s a bit more complicated than I realized.
Let me explain.
When the issue of using paper comes up, we hear the loudest voices
Those who actively campaign for going paperless use emotionally charged commands to make you feel guilty for using paper. And the message has been effective. They use statistics, like the ones listed above, to offer proof that going paperless is better for the environment.
And while those stats are true, they show only part of the picture.
In response to these anti-paper campaigns, opposition groups have launched their own campaigns to educate the public on both sides of the print vs electronic argument.
The website http://printgrowstrees.org/ places an emphasis on the fact that the demand for paper gives landowners a reason to grow trees, instead of selling their land for development.
The fact is, more than half of all US forest land is privately owned, and requires money for maintenance and taxes. That means landowners need income from this land. When a working forest can’t make money, the land must be put to another use, like developing, grazing, farming, or mining; all of which permanently destroy the forests.
In a press release by Two Sides Inc., Company President and COO Phil Riebel said, “The fact is, print and paper products made in the U.S. have a great environmental story to tell. Paper comes from a renewable resource — trees grown in responsibly managed forests — and it’s recycled more than any other commodity, including plastics, metals and glass.” “Thanks in great part to the sustainable forestry practices advanced by the paper and forest products industry, the volume of growing trees in U.S. forests has increased nearly 50 percent over the last half century.”
But what about digital media, does it destroy our forests?
The other side of the digital vs. paper debate is often less-noticed—the impact digital media has on our increasing energy use. And more energy use equals more pollution. Americans use more energy today than ever, thanks to digital tech. We need electricity to power our phones, desktops, laptops, hi-definition TVs, and many more of the gadgets that didn’t exist 20-30 years ago. In a 2013 report by Mark Mills titled, “The Cloud Begins With Coal”, it says, “…the world’s Information-Communications-Technologies (ICT) ecosystem uses about 1,500 terawatt-hours of power per year. That’s about 10% of the world’s total electricity generation or roughly the combined power production of Germany and Japan. It’s the same amount of electricity that was used to light the entire planet in 1985.” There’s also the unseen energy usage that comes from making our technological gadgets in the first place.
A research paper by Liqui Deng, Callie W. Babbitt, and Eric D. Williams, shows that as much as 70% of the energy a typical laptop uses during its life span is used in manufacturing the computer.
When the energy we need to power our devices comes from burning fossil fuels, the impact on the environment is undeniable.
The coal needed to power coal-burning power plants comes from forest-destroying practices like mountaintop removal coal mining. This practice forever alters animal habitat, destroys stream heads, and pollutes the immediate environment of a once green mountaintop forest.
Then there is the waste caused by consumer electronics.
According to the United Nations, 20-50 million metric tons of toxic e-waste are thrown out every year.
Does that mean that using paper is better than going paperless?
Well, not exactly.
Both paper and electronic devices have an impact on our world. But paperless has one thing going for it that could make it king-of-the-hill.
A simple Google search for “countries committed to renewable energy” will bring up article after article featuring countries with specific and ambitious goals for going green.
A recent post by the Climate Reality Project highlights 11 countries that are leading the way when it comes to shifting to renewable energy. Some of these countries are operating at 99% clean energy today! And many have projected being at 100% clean energy production by the year 2020.
In 2016 at the Climate Vulnerable Forum, 48 countries agreed to make their energy production 100% renewable “as rapidly as possible” by between 2030 and 2050 at the latest.
Initiatives by countries, and amazing advances in science, are paving the way for a world with 100% clean energy in the near future.
With new technology in clean energy cropping up each year, I have high hopes that the energy we use to power our electronics won’t do the massive damage that has been outlined in the previous paragraphs.
If we balance emotions with facts, we can come up with a real solution for our communication needs that won’t hurt our environment.
The ideal scenario for a technologically advancing society like ours, is combining paperless communication with renewable energy and recycling.
This is the future I am looking forward to. And in the meantime, it seems we don’t need to feel as guilty as we thought about using some paper, while doing all we can to promote the development of clean energy.