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Digital Media is not as Green as You Think

It’s common to assume that moving from print to online is more eco-friendly. But did you know tons of wasted consumer electronics (TVs, VCRs, DVD players, video cameras, stereo systems, telephones and computer equipment) contribute to a lot of waste? Worldwide, only 15% of all electronic waste is recycled. In addition, global electricity demand for network-enabled devices contributes to a growing percentage of energy used.

The question is: have you thought about how much energy you’re using whether you’re a digital or print-focused organization?

“The direct impact of information communication technology (ICT) products and services replacing paper is far from negligible, and the trade-off between the two ‘technologies’ depends on conditions such as use frequency, source of energy, end-of-life management of the products, etc.” (Arnfalk, 2010).

Paper recycling has its perks: it reuses a renewable resource that sequesters carbon and helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and these reduced emissions result in avoided methane emissions. In addition, recovering paper extends the fiber supply and saves considerable landfill space.

Data centers and cloud services also use a lot of energy space. The dramatic increase in Wifi use (a 460% increase from just 2012 to 2015) increases in carbon footprint from 6 megatonnes (MT) of Co2 in 2012 to up to 30 MT of CO2 just in 2015. Up to 90% of this consumption is attributable to wireless access network technologies, while data centers account for 9%.

“Data centers are one of the largest and fastest growing consumers of electricity in the US. In 2013, U.S. data centers consumed an estimated 91 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity – enough electricity to power all the households in NYC twice over—and are on-track to reach 140 billion kilowatt-hours by 2020.” (Natural Resources Defense Council, 2015).

In addition, electronics contain hazardous substances such as cadmium, lead and mercury and should never be put into the trash. If put into landfill, these substances can poison the soil and water. If incinerated, they can emit toxic gases.

It is estimated that the production and running of the ICT sector equates to 2% of global GHG emissions, similar to the airline industry, and this is expected to double in 2020. The pulp, paper and print industry account for 1% of global carbon dioxide emissions.

This article was excerpted from Print and Paper The Facts: Digital media has environmental impacts and may not be “greener” than print and paper.

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