Before I really thought about it, I used to think the environmental cost of emails and digital information was somewhere between nil and negligible. Then I was forwarded an email from my friend’s workplace tech department. It asked colleagues to limit the large attachments sent in emails because they were quickly filling up their server storage space resulting in higher service fees and associated energy demands and GHGs (the office was focused on reducing their GHG emissions).

As it turns out, GHG emissions associated with data storage can be significant. In the Regional Carbon Initiative, electricity demand from external servers can sometimes reaches as high as 25% of an overall footprint.

That’s a lot of energy and, believe it or not, sometimes it is worth using paper. For example, do you read the newspaper for more than 30 minutes a day? If so, according to one study it’s better for the planet to buy a newspaper than read it online. Newspapers emit an average of 28 kg of GHGs / year (mostly from paper production) while reading the newspaper online for 30 minutes averages 35kg of GHGs / year (mostly from electricity – or material production if using a tablet device).

As you can imagine, deciding whether to print something – say an annual report – requires some reflection. But here are some things to think about when deciding whether to print or not to print.

When Printing:

  1. What kind of paper do you print with? Some paper comes from virgin old-growth forests from half-way around the world. The ecological footprint for this paper is much larger than paper from locally harvested, sustainable, and biodegradable materials. Look for these certifications like FSC, SFI, and PEFC when you decide to print as they’ll help you find locally sourced, renewable, and biodegradable papers.
  2. What kind of inks do you use? Environmental impact doesn’t always come from the paper itself. Inks can use a significant amount of petroleum. But, like paper, not all inks are created equal. There are plenty of vegetable oil inks with lower toxic and petroleum materials (but make sure you take a look at the details of the ink. Some veggie inks still include a lot of petroleum)

When using Digital Sources:

  1. Data storage requires a lot of energy and not all data is stored on your computer. According to one study spam emails alone have contributed the equivalent of two billion gallons of gasoline worth of GHGs. Does your organization have a central place to store data? If so, can you send a link instead of an attachment? How long will they spend reading it? You may want to think twice about using a tablet for an entire day in order to save a single piece of paper. Conversely, in an hour long meeting, consider using a computer and a projector to save having to print 10 copies of a 20 page colour report.
  2. What computers do you have and what computers will read your attachments? How are they disposed? The ecological costs of digital data goes far beyond electricity. True environmental costs mostly come from the collection, production, distribution, and waste of a device. For example, batteries, LCD Screens, and hardware use hazardous materials that are difficult to get and often even more difficult to dispose of properly. And because computers become obsolete so quickly, they’re often not recycled.

These are just a few things to ponder when deciding whether to print or not to print. What are your thoughts on this question? Have you ever had to make this choice on environmental grounds?


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