Digital Cost to the Environment

Computer devices. Mobile phone, laptop, printer, camera and tablWho hasn’t gotten an email that says something like ‘think before you print’ in the footer? The paper industry has been an easy scapegoat for environmentally concerned folks needing to point the finger somewhere. It’s true…producing paper generally involves chopping down a tree. But is printing that email harming or potentially helping the environment?

Let’s look at that email for a moment. The energy you use at your desk sending an email is only a small part of the energy required for that email to reach its destination: Energy used by computers, servers, routers, cellular networks, and data centers around the world; energy to view, store, forward, and delete messages; energy used to produce those digital devices.

That energy comes from somewhere! Digital media is in large part dependent on coal powered electricity. Mountaintop removal coal mining is decimating forests – entire mountains – in Appalachia, destroying woodland habitats, burying headwaters, and releasing toxins and dust into the air.

Computers, cellular networks, and data centers use a tremendous amount of electricity. Cloud storage sounds light and ephemeral, but are actually huge data centers that require energy to power – in climate controlled spaces. Annual global data center energy usage is 1.5 times the yearly energy usage of New York City!

Now let’s talk about paper. It is the most recycled material in use in the U.S. Up to 65% of the energy used in pulp and paper mills is generated from renewable sources. Much of the wood used for paper in the U.S. comes from privately owned tree farms where trees are sustainably grown and harvested.

Almost every component of the tree is used – the bark and branches are burned providing a renewable energy source, the ash is used for construction materials, pulping and paper-making produces turpentine and adhesives, and the residual fibers are used for mulch and animal bedding.

Neither industry is good or bad – both have work to do to improve sustainability.

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