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Going Green vs. Going Paperless: Not the Same Thing

written by: N Nayab•edited by: Ginny Edwards•updated: 5/19/2011

Most people equate going green with going paperless. This however need not hold true. The energy consumed by electronic devices and the mining required to produce electricity may actually cause more damage to the environment. Read on for an overview of the going green vs. going paperless conundrum.

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    The shift to a paperless office is an increasing fad with more and more companies trying to embrace the concept wholeheartedly. The major drivers towards such shift are lower costs of maintaining electronic records, possible improvement in process efficiency, and concern for the environment.

    The underlying objective behind refraining from printing documents and saving a soft copy instead is to save the trees used to make paper from destruction. Going green vs. going paperless however need not always go hand in hand, and contrary to the popular impression, these two concepts may often contradict!

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    Sustainable Paper Making

    Going Green vs. Going Paperless Much of the damage to the environment resultant from print media is owing to the present model of deforestation, and obsolete paper mills, both that make manufacturing paper unsustainable in the long run.

    The fact however remains that responsible deforestation to make paper actually helps conserve the environment rather than cause its destruction. New technologies make it possible to make paper out of materials such as kenaf and hemp, without cutting down trees. An acre of kenaf, a plant related to cotton, for instance produces as much fiber a year as an acre of yellow pine does in twenty years. Such non-tree based papers require less bleaching and less energy to produce, and are less expensive to manufacture than conventional papers from trees.

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    Energy Requirements of Digital Media

    Digital media such as computers, eBooks, I-pods, cell phones, game consoles, telecommunication networks, and data centers have huge energy requirements that cause massive deforestation, environmental destruction, and ecological imbalance, much more than what manufacturing paper does to the environment. The increased energy requirements stem not just from usage of such devices but also from manufacturing such devices.

    The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the electricity consumed by data centers alone doubled from 2000 to 2006, reaching more than 60 billion kilowatt hours per year, roughly equal to the amount of electricity used by 559,608 homes in one year. The Environment Protection Agency estimates that this figure will double again in 2011.

    The power plants that supply such energy requirements operate on coal. Mountaintop-removal coal mining causes deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and pollution in a big way, besides lung cancer, heart disease and other ailments to the local populace. Coal fired power plants emit sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide into the atmosphere, causing acid rain that destroys extensive tracts of deciduous forests, game, wildlife, and rich biodiversity.

    The obvious solution is the use of green energy sources such as adopting green technologies in computing, substituting forest biomass powered by forest bio-refineries as an alternative to coal based plants, and deploying renewable energy sources such as wind turbines and solar power. Such improvements are however still many years away.

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    Waste Generation

    Going Green vs. Going Paperless Waste paper piles up visibly in homes and businesses, but is recyclable. Digital media such as computers do not generate such apparent waste, but in reality generate much more harmful albeit “invisible” waste. The energy requirements of semiconductor manufacturing techniques are higher—up to six orders of magnitude above those of conventional manufacturing processes. The e-waste resultant from spent up power cells and obsolete devices are toxic, and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) estimates such toxic waste growing by about 40 million tons a year.

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    Practical Considerations

    Another dimension in the conundrum of going green vs. going paperless is that even if the theoretical basis of going paperless is to go green, in real life practical situations, the drive to go paperless may actually increase the use of paper.

    Digital media is still unreliable and complicated, and generates more paper in packing cartons, instruction manuals, printing multiple copies to make backups and more.

    The shift to a paperless office requires scanning contracts, mail, vendor catalogs, magazines, newspaper articles, memos and other documents as PDF files and storing them in a firm’s virtual library. The problem is that network connectivity is still not seamless, especially when traveling. Corporate firewalls and inherent security risks compound the problem of accessing such documents from anywhere. Success moreover depends on high level of computer skills and efficient storage, which does not always happen.

    The state of efficiency of computer devices still has much scope for improvement. Research by Bell Labs concludes that information and communication technology networks can be 10,000 times more efficient than what exists now.

    Inefficiencies invariably lead to taking printouts of documents and discarding them after use, and then taking new printouts again when needed.

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    A review of the going green vs. going paperless conundrum reveals that while both paper media and digital media have their pluses and minuses, the fact remains that going digital might actually contribute more to environmental degradation and deforestation. Responsible choices demand making informed decisions and rational trade offs.

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    Reference

    1. Carli, Don. "Going Paperless: Not as Green as You May Think" Retrieved 23 March 2011.
    2. Michigan Environmental Education Curriculum. “Tree Free Paper.” . Retrieved 23 March 2011.
    3. Reuters. "US should stop mountaintop coal mining -scientists." . Retrieved 23 March 2011.

    Image Credit:

     flickr.com/Cliff

     flickr.com/Samuel Mann