As the newspaper industry declines and publications enhance their web presence, many are claiming that the web evolution is “greening” the publishing industry. Fewer print publications saves trees and the planet, right?
Not so fast.
A closer comparison of total life cycle energy and resource consumption reveals that web publications are not necessarily greener. Studies by the Center for Sustainable Communications in Stockholm, Sweden, and a similar study by the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan, compared print publications with their web counterparts. It performed a complete life-cycle analysis of both forms of publications and uncovered some surprising results.
First, the obvious: Print publications consume trees—approximately 12 trees per page of newsprint (unless its 100% post-consumer recycled content like the pages of Blue Ridge Outdoors). The pulp and paper industry is the third largest emitter of industrial pollution air, water, and land in North America, emitting over 220 million pounds of toxins each year, and they consumer massive amounts of water resources. Many of the inks used by the paper industry are toxic as well. The study also factored the significant costs of harvesting trees, transporting products, shipping, and storing paper products.
Web publications do not require any clearcuts, but the carbon footprint of a web site may ultimately be larger than paper. The coal and petroleum resources required for the energy use of on-screen viewing, as well as the computers and the servers supporting the web publications, often rival or exceed newsprint publications. And the environmental impact of manufacturing computers is even worse than the pulp and paper industry, requiring the harvesting and processing of petrochemicals for plastics and numerous toxic heavy metals. The mines providing the materials for a microchip are some of the most devastating environmental catastrophes on the planet—with a host of social and humanitarian disasters following in their wake. And a newspaper or newsprint magazine can be tossed in the recycling bin, while e-waste is the fastest growing and one of the most dangerous sources of landfill waste in the world.
Both studies concluded that the web industry has the potential to be significantly greener than print if the energy used by computer users is provided by clean, renewable energy sources instead of dirty fossil fuels.
We’ll continue to need both paper and computers to tackle the environmental challenges facing us. The best solutions are probably the simplest: re-use and recycle print publications, share computers whenever possible, properly dispose of all electronic waste, and encourage renewable energy initiatives, so that surfing the web is not trampling the planet.