How green are digital media?

It’s often assumed that digital media are better for the environment, as opposed to old, “tree-based” media, which conjure up images of loggers cutting down majestic trees in rainforests, baby deer and tiny birds losing their homes, and piles of old newspapers bundled up and being tossed in landfills. Meanwhile, digital media go out of their way to present a cool, clean, eco-friendly image, from the futuristic, clean lines of the iPad (no inky fingers here!) to the continuing promise of a society free of paperback books, filing cabinets, manila folders and paper clips. Even the very name of this paper-free nirvana, “The Cloud,” inspires visions of fluffy white cotton balls against a blue sky that one might have found as a Windows desktop background in the past.

However, as is often the case, truth and advertising are not in alignment. According to a article by Don Carli, senior research fellow with the nonprofit Institute for Sustainable Communication, in, digital media generate a sizable—and largely unseen—environmental footprint. Carli cites statistics from a Bell Labs study that state that our current communication networks have the potential to be 10,000 times more efficient than they are today. He quotes a United Nations Environmental Programme report that shows that 40 million new tons of e-waste—the leftovers from the manufacture of electronics, and the eventual junk such electronics become—are created every year. And e-waste contains chemicals and materials hazardous to human health and the environment, including a variety of heavy metals.

Much electronic waste ends up in developing countries such as China.

Electronics manufacturing processes are very energy consumptive. The energy needed to manufacture electronics, which are increasingly made overseas in the Asian Pacific rim, comes largely from coal. Coal mining from mountaintops here in the United States accounts for massive deforestation and air and water pollution, on top of the air pollution created, when overseas electric plants burn coal to generate power.

Conversely, the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), in its “Guide to Buying Paper,” contends that “Well-managed forests maintain biodiversity and other important ecosystem services such as protection of water sheds. These forests also provide benefits for local people.” WWF recommends that in addition to simply using less paper by designing efficient packaging and using the least heavy stock for the job, companies and consumers should look for Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified paper products. FSC-certified paper products, depending on the type of certification, contain up to 100 percent post-consumer waste and/or come from well-managed forests.

WWF cites the furniture manufacturer, Ikea, as an example of a company that produces tremendous amounts of paper products, chiefly its catalog, of which 170 million copies are printed each year and distributed in 30 countries, while reducing its environmental footprint. By gathering data on where their paper comes from and how it’s produced, Ikea has determined that their catalog now accounts for 32 percent fewer CO2 emissions, even while catalog production has grown by 26 percent in recent years.

So, our old friend paper may not be so bad after all, if it’s purchased from the right sources and recycled. Digital technology bears incredible promise for a quicker, cleaner, more efficient future, but it also bears a hidden cost that may be difficult to stomach. Think twice when you choose between picking up your copy of the Wall Street Journal at the newsstand or reading it on your tablet.

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