Myth: Paper has a high carbon footprint

The majority of people I speak to believe that reading a newspaper online or sending a campaign via the email is more environmentally friendly than a printed paper version. This is not true.

Reading the news online for more than 30 minutes consumes 20 per cent more energy than reading from a traditional newspaper. Emails also carry a heavy footprint – one email, with a 400k attachment, sent to 20 people, is equivalent in carbon emissions to burning a 100w light bulb for 30 minutes.

I see more and more statements or campaigns, encouraging people to go paperless and receive your statements online, because they claim both these options are much more environmentally friendly when, in fact, the complete opposite is true. A typical year of inbound emails adds up to 135kg CO2-e. This is equivalent to printing over 1.1 million sheets of paper, significantly more than the average consumption per person each year.

So-called green choices made by some businesses about the promotion of a paperless office is a concept which was initially developed in the 1980s when computers entered the corporate workplace. Despite this, paper remains a practical and relevant medium. Today office workers on average use over 10,000 sheets of paper per year in order to complete their job requirements. Whilst a large number of sheets, certainly less than the 1.1 million sheets, and absolutely still an everyday office tool.

And yet the go paperless campaigns continue with environmental objectives in mind, most often led by sustainability teams who have simply not examined the facts. Digital communications certainly do not carry a more environmental footprint than paper. An online Google search emits 0.7g of CO2-e with every search made, whereas a business card emits less than 0.12g of CO2-e for the card’s entire lifetime. Printing the 700 page Stern Review emits 85g of CO2-e maximum compared to reading it on a computer for an hour which emits 226g of CO2-e every time you read or open the file for more than ten minutes.

Recent studies across five media channels – television, internet, catalogues, email and newspapers found catalogues had the lowest carbon footprint at 63kg of CO2-e per person per annum and the highest being television at 450kg of CO2-e per person per annum. Makes you re-think that 30 second advertising commercial when trying to reduce your impact.

Australia’s paper recycling rate is one of the highest in the world yet electronic waste is growing by five per cent annually and is the fastest growing portion of Australia’s municipal waste stream. The amount of electronic products discarded globally has sky rocketed in recent times, with 20-50 million tonnes generated every year. Of the 15.7 million computers that reached their end of life in Australia in 2007-08, only 1.5 million were recycled – that’s less than 10 per cent. If 75 per cent of the 1.5 million televisions discarded annually were recycled there would be savings of 23,000 tonnes of CO2-e equivalents and 160,000 cubic metres of landfill space.

Despite manufacturers claims, electronic devices simply cannot be recycled as easily as paper; the infrastructure and industry have not been fully established. In fact, many electronic products, whilst able to be recycled by definition, are not because it is not commercially viable to do so.

There are government initiatives such as the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme providing Australian householders and small businesses with access to free recycling services for televisions, computers, printers and other computer products. However, the uptake and awareness has been below expectations.

Paper can be recycled and reused five to seven times, while the majority of electronic products in Australia are going straight to landfill. 95 per cent of paper products are reused and recycled by Australian households, which is something we should promote and be proud of.

Paper production is not a high consumer of energy either when compared to the production of electronics. On average, it takes 500 kilowatt-hours of electricity to produce 200kg of paper, the average amount of paper each of us consume annually. This is equivalent to powering one computer continuously for five months or an average household leaving its electronic equipment on standby for a year.

European research has shown that mail comprises 0.1 per cent of total household CO2-e emissions; this 14kg of CO2-e is equivalent to one 70km car journey (Melbourne to Geelong), it is also equivalent to five cheeseburgers, or nine litres of milk.

Always the disclaimer, however it is an important one, Two Sides is not against electronic communications as we do live in a multi-channel world. However the claim that electronic is more environmentally friendly and carries a lower carbon footprint is an absolute myth and one that should be challenged. Paper is an integral part of the multi-channel world we communicate in and with increased effectiveness, ROI and environmental credentials paper and print have a significant role to play into the future.

As they say on the high carbon impacting television show – that paper has a high carbon footprint myth is busted.

Republished with permission of Australian Printer magazinewww.australianprinter.com.au