Ask Eartha: What going paperless means for the environment |

Ask Eartha: What going paperless means for the environment

Dear Eartha,

I recently saw your ad for your Sustainable Business Lunch n’ Learn workshop next week. I see the workshop discusses ways businesses can go paperless. I’ve heard that “going paperless” is not nearly as “green” as you think. What are your thoughts?

Anonymous – Frisco

Thank you for the comment. Yes, the High Country Conservation Center will be hosting a workshop that is partly geared towards ways to go paperless. In the center’s Sustainable Business program, we encourage businesses to think about reducing their consumption overall including paper, energy, water, etc. Part of the mission of the High Country Conservation Center is to protect our dwindling natural resources. So, even if paper comes from sustainably harvested forests, trees are still a natural resource that must be extracted to make paper.

There are different schools of thought regarding paper versus digital media. Some say that when you take into account the life cycle assessment of each, digital media is way worse. I’ve discussed life cycle assessments in previous articles, but if you’re not familiar with them, they look at the environmental aspects and potential impacts of a product or service through all stages of its life cycle from cradle to grave. In other words, it takes into account the raw material extracted through materials processing, manufacture, distribution, repair and maintenance, disposal or recycling. Life cycle assessments also include energy consumption used to make, transport and dispose of a product.

The organization Two Sides aims to dispel myths about the environmental advantages of going paperless. They state that when you take into account the life cycle assessment of digital versus print, digital is by far more harmful. They quoted a World Resources Institute statistic stating that “the information communication technology sector equates to 2 percent of greenhouse gas emissions” compared to the pulp, paper and print industry which only accounts for 1 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. They also state that two-thirds of the energy used for production by the U.S. pulp and paper industry comes from using carbon-neutral biomass on-site.

So where does that leave us? Are we going to stop using computers, smartphones, laptops, e-readers, etc., and go back to using typewriters? Are we going to abandon the Internet for long hours in the library sifting through encyclopedias and microfiche? That is the equivalent of saying we should all go back to living as hunter gatherers because it’s better for the environment. Yes, these devices do have an environmental impact which is often overlooked. Should we consider using less electronics? Absolutely. Is it wise to wait on buying the latest and greatest new gadget? You betcha!

Critics of the paperless movement do make very valid points. We often demonize paper and paper usage and do not consider how often a company replaces their computers, for example. We do not take into account whether or not those computers contain toxic materials, the energy consumed to manufacture them or “embodied” energy. Nor do we think about the energy used to power our electronics. Does this energy come from renewable energy sources or does it come from coal-fired power plants? Was this coal extracted through the process of mountaintop removal (which is way more impactful on an ecosystem than cutting down trees)? These are the questions we should be asking when we consider what electronics to purchase.

Others say the overall environmental impact of digital versus print media is a difficult thing to determine. One must consider how often you replace your electronic device. Do you recycle it or does it end up in the landfill? Did the energy used to manufacture the device come from non-renewable or renewable energy sources? What about the paper media and how was it manufactured? Did the paper come from sustainably harvested trees? Does the paper contain recycled content? You get the gist.

I have to say, I have not jumped on to the bandwagon of e-readers. I do love picking up a real book, the way it smells, the feel of it in my hands. I will always have numerous sets of bookcases in my home because I love them. I don’t foresee paper and paper products going away. In fact, studies comparing print and digital media show that information is better retained and engages the reader more than digital. Nonetheless, being conscientious of what you’re printing and making sure to print double-sided just makes good business sense.

If a business continues to use paper products, we recommend to business owners to buy paper that contains a third party certification, ideally the Forestry Stewardship Council logo. Additionally, we recommend the paper be made of post-consumer recycled content. The World Wildlife Fund has published a really good guide to buying paper that you can find online.

When it comes to electronics, try to purchase those that contain the Energy Star logo. Consider these questions: Does it contain heavy metals? Does the company use renewable energy in the manufacturing of the product? Will you have to replace it in three years or will it last for at least five? What can be done with it at the end of its life?

We have found that most businesses who are successful in our Sustainable Business program have not only a good balance of paper and digital media, but also are well informed of their options for both. This is what our upcoming workshop aims to accomplish.

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at

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