Yet it all seems so obvious. The printed forms of our favorite magazines, newspapers, and books are pre-green reminders of an innocent yet rapacious age. It was a time when resources were plentiful, carbon offsets unknown, and Sunday was spent reading the funnies that Rover had gently gripped in his teeth following a morning ramble to the end of the driveway. Readers had no reason to worry about the “who, what, when, where, how” of the news that landed in their gardens. The only green component was the foliage surrounding it.
Today, we know a lot more about the environmental impact of the printed word. 65% of the industry’s carbon footprint comes from paper. Each ton of Time magazine emits 0.32 tons of carbon dioxide, mostly from pulp- and paper-mills. National Geographic generates 0.82 kg of carbon-dioxide equivalents through the life cycle of each issue, with greenhouse-gas emissions akin to driving an auto three kilometers. Discover magazine accounts for 2.1 pounds of carbon dioxide per issue, equivalent to twelve 100-watt light bulbs left on for an hour. The company arrives at this estimate based on thirty-five employees traveling to its offices each day, in addition to other transportation costs; office energy use; paper production, inking, and printing—348,000 pounds of paper are used each month for the million copies printed; and distribution.[i]
And the industry is wasteful: two-thirds of magazines published in the U.S are not even purchased. Ninety per cent are trashed within a year of publication, and just 19% recycled. The rest—about two million tons—ends up in landfills or incinerators.
But now consumers can enjoy the same titles in electronic versions. Common sense suggests these are cheaper and less deleterious environmentally. However, when side-by-side comparisons are made, the story changes. The environmental impacts of making a tablet—including raw materials, transport, energy, and disposal—far outweigh the footprint of a book printed on recycled paper: 33 pounds of minerals in the tablet, including conflict minerals such as tantalum, versus two-thirds of a pound in a paper book; 79 gallons of water versus 2 gallons; 100 kilowatt hours of fossil fuels versus two hours, with proportional emissions of carbon dioxide. And because young trees are the most efficient at absorbing carbon emissions, regular replenishment through the paper industry’s reforestation programs may give paper an edge on the renewable resource score.
The health effects of exposure to internal toxins are estimated to be seventy times greater in tablets, and the energy required to read something on the cloud for half an hour equates to ninety minutes watching television or the printing of a newspaper.[ii] Google disclosed last year that its annual carbon footprint was almost equal to that of the United Nations, while Greenpeace estimates that if the cloud were a country it would be the fifth largest energy consumer in the world.[iii]
The electricity industry recently boasted that the cost of powering an iPad is just $1.36 a year.[iv] That certainly seems like it would have a marginal impact on the environment, not just the pocket book. But ascribing a low dollar cost per individual device is both an enticement to buy more of them—this is known as the rebound effect—and a dangerous diversion from an important fact: at the current rate of growth in total sales, consumer electronics will account for 30 percent of the world’s residential electricity use by 2022, and 45 percent by 2030, with proportional increases in harmful emissions.
What can be done? The German company kaufDA plants trees to offset blog footprints, and we can get green certification for our web practices from firms like Green Certified Site. At the corporate level, the impact of the computing cloud you use can be judged thanks to a new Carbon Utilization Effectiveness standard.[v]
Otherwise, there are many competing, and confusing, environmental-certification systems to calculate the renewable virtues of paper versus the electrical vices of electronics. Perhaps it’s time to reinvest in an older model of reading: a healthy national network of public libraries can mitigate the environmental costs of material and digital publishing alike by socializing access, centralizing distribution, and providing community-centered forms of sociality.[vi]
And this blog? We still don’t have a definitive answer to the seemingly simple query with which we began. Any calculation of its environmental impact would have to include the power sources that enabled us to research, write, exchange, edit, and promote it; the server warehouse used by Psychology Today to deliver and maintain it; and your use of it. We still have a lot of basic conceptual and empirical work to do before we can inspect our e-consciences with e-confidence.