Which Medium Is More Sustainable? Paper or digital?

Paper or  digital? The simple answer is—neither. The most common answer is that print kills  trees and computers don't, so digital media must be greener. The typical  indignant response is that print is greener because trees are a  renewable resource and computers are toxic energy vampires that don't  grow on trees. It's time to stop the bickering.

Our future  depends on getting this right. The life cycles of both print and digital  media have positive and negative triple bottom line impacts. Both need  to become more sustainable, rather than fighting a zero-sum war of  words. Humanity's prospects and our better nature will best be served if  we strive for the sustainable evolution of both print and digital  media, rather than allowing or cheering the demise of one or the other.  If you are a printer or supplier of graphic arts you cannot afford to be  indignant or complacent about making print significantly more  sustainable than it is—and don't try to argue that you can't afford it.

Defining  Sustainability

The term  sustainability was first used by Lester Brown in the 1981 book, "Building a  Sustainable Society," and it is closely related to the widely used term "sustainable  development," as defined by the 1987 Bruntland Commission report to  the United Nations, Our Common Future. Sustainability is a cross-cutting  concept meaning far more than the basic notion of "things  persisting or enduring" or being "green."

While sustainability encompasses environmental  stewardship, conservation and other "green" factors, it is a broad aspirational concept that seeks  to integrate and balance the economic, environmental, and social  outcomes of human activity through the use of qualitative action and  principles such as The Precautionary Principle, The Natural Step and  Appreciative Inquiry, as well as quantitative methods such as Lifecycle  Analysis and System Dynamics. It seeks to meet the economic,  environmental and social needs of present generations without crossing  thresholds that prevent future generations from doing the same.

While environmental issues have typically taken a back  seat to financial issues and investment during difficult economic  times, this time it's different. Eighty percent of North American  corporate sustainability executives recently surveyed by the research  firm Panel Intelligence plan to maintain or increase levels of  sustainability related spending in 2009. More importantly, R&D and  coordination of marketing initiatives for the greening of IT and digital  media are growing and outstripping any comparable efforts for print.

Print service providers, technologists, marketers and  their associations should take note of efforts such as the Climate  Savers Computing Initiative, The Green Grid, and the Global  e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI). An initiative such as the  Sustainable Green Printing Partnership is a good start, but more  investment and better coordination of efforts with others are needed.  Failure to materially address the greening of print supply chains may  ultimately seal the fate of print, as well as the fate of the billions  whose media-related needs will not be served by a digital monoculture.  Addressing sustainability is an issue of growing importance that  requires us to rethink our approach.

The Secret  Lives of Print & Digital Media

Have you ever  considered what the carbon footprint of your print and digital document  workflows are, or what the carbon footprint of a magazine or an iPhone  is? (Before you rush to use one of the dozens of carbon calculators  available, it's important to realize that the results you get can vary  widely as the assumptions used differ, and standards for calculating  carbon footprints are still under development.)

The amounts of energy, materials and waste associated  with the lifecycles of print and digital media are all too often  overlooked, misunderstood or underestimated. There are billions of  kilowatt hours of electricity embodied in the paper, ink and digital  technologies we use each day, and among our greatest challenges is the  need to identify, measure and reduce the amount of energy, waste and  greenhouse gas emissions associated with each page or megabyte of  information we rely on.

Both print  and digital media use prodigious amounts of electricity. According to  the Department of Energy, the U.S. papermaking industry used more than  75 billion kilowatt hours of electricity in 2006. That's the fourth  largest industrial use of electricity in the country. However, U.S. data  centers and servers consumed over 60 billion kilowatt hours of  electricity during the same year, and that does not include the energy  consumed by client computers or networks. In fact, recent analysis by  Gartner Research indicates that datacenter energy consumption is  expected to double by 2010, and its growth is unsustainable. This is one  of the factors spurring investment in Green IT.

On average, each kilowatt hour of energy represents  the emission of approximately two pounds of CO2. To put that in  perspective, consider the Empire State Building's 37 million cubic feet  of space. The combined emissions of U.S. papermaking, datacenters and  client energy demand alone would fill over 100 Empire State Buildings  with solidified CO2 (dry ice) each year. Each cubic foot of dry ice  weighs approximately 100 pounds.

The Carbon  Footprint of the iPhone

It is  currently difficult to discover carbon footprints. However, according to  information recently released by Apple, the lifecycle carbon footprint  of an iPhone is responsible for the emission of 121 pounds of  CO2-equivalent green house gas emissions over the course of a three-year  expected lifetime of use, the same amount produced by 12, 100-watt  light bulbs glowing for 691 hours, or a car engine burning 603 gallons  of gasoline. Though it is not a direct comparison, it is interesting to  note that Discover magazine estimates the lifecycle carbon footprint of  each copy of its publication is responsible for 2.1 pounds of carbon  dioxide emissions, the same amount produced by 12, 100-watt light bulbs  glowing for an hour, or a car engine burning 14 ounces of gasoline.

Over the next few years it can be expected that  lifecycle data and the carbon labeling of all products will move from  the margins to the mainstream. In part this will be due to the high  priority that the current administration in Washington has placed on  carbon cap and trade legislation, and regulation of greenhouse gas  emissions. In addition, there is already broad support for voluntary  initiatives such as the Carbon Disclosure Project and Carbon Trust  labeling initiative.

Research has  shown that all things being equal, consumers prefer product with smaller  carbon footprints. If that's true for other products, why not for print  and digital media? Business, government and day-to-day life depend on  both print and digital media to a greater extent than is commonly  realized, but neither is without its pluses and minuses. Members of the  digital generation might not know enough to care if print goes the way  of the slide rule, but they are unlikely to welcome arguments for  reinventing print and keeping it in the mix if they are confronted by  righteous indignation about the inherent greenness of print as it is  today. Better to acknowledge the negative aspects of print then ask  critics to consider the metastizing carbon footprint of digital media  and encourage them to envision a near term future in which both media  supply chains collaborate to become more economically, environmentally  and socially sustainable.

Paint a  picture of sustainable data centers and green printing facilities.  Discuss how both print and digital media could be powered by advanced  paper mills called integrated biorefineries that turn agricultural  waste, waste paper, dedicated energy crops, algae and sustainably  harvested trees into energy, biofuels, biopolymer toner, renewable  chemical feedstocks and paper. Not only would this increase U.S. energy  security, it would create green collar jobs and address climate change  at the same time.

Small Things  Add Up, But Big Things Add Up Faster

We can not  achieve sustainability by asking consumers to change light bulbs, drive  hybrids and recycle alone. And we can't achieve sustainability by  decreasing the diversity of media options that serve as our collective  memory.

Whether you  choose print or digital, anyone who lives in the U.S. contributes more  than twice as much greenhouse gas as the global average. Considering  that we represent about 5 percent of the world's population, and that  billions in the developing world emulate our lifestyle, it becomes even  more important to avoid simple answers or ignore inconvenient truths. We  have an opportunity and an obligation to reinvent both print and  digital media. We must also be realistic about the limited effects of  small individual or voluntary actions.

It's time for consumers and producers of media to  recognize that we share a common fate that can only be sustainable if we  work together to make both print and digital sustainable. Toward that  end, the Institute for Sustainable Communication welcomes your support, comments, questions and suggestions for positive steps we can take together.