The “paperless” workplace: not as green as you think

03/07/2015

Interesting blog from Tim English on paper and electronics and the efficient use of both.

This blog by Tim English originally appeared on the Superior Business Solutions website on June 30, 2015.

It’s Time to Go Paperless…Wait a Minute

I saw an article on LinkedIn the other day that really caught my attention. In it, Phil Riebel, the president of Two Sides North America, provides some very thoughtful insights about paper and its role in environmental sustainability. I found them intriguing, and wanted to share them with you.

We have all heard a great deal about our increasingly paperless society and the benefits it would appear to hold for the preservation of our forests and other natural resources. But the key word here is “appear” – because in his article, Riebel demonstrates that when all the relevant factors are considered, doing everything electronically may not be the right path toward protecting our ecosystems.

It’s Time to Go Paperless…It’s Time to Get the Facts

The article is based on a commentary by Fred Bercovitch, a wildlife conservation biologist at Kyoto University. According to Bercovitch, the paperless society is a long way from impact-free. Those desktop computers, laptops, tablets, cell phones and data transmission networks that, in one way or another, “replace” paper all come with their own huge ecological footprint.

First of all, they require vast amounts of energy to produce and operate; and we as a society replace those items quite frequently. According to estimates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the average person replaces his or her cell phone, for example, every 18 months. Since 10% or fewer of all cell phones are ever recycled, you can see how many of them simply become electronic waste in landfills.

In addition, each of those electronic devices require rare earth elements (REEs) to operate. There are no synthetic alternatives, and the extraction and use of those elements devastate the environment. While only small amounts of these elements, (with names like neodymium, europium, terbium and yttrium) are used in each product, the total required for electronic devices worldwide is staggering: nearly 150,000 tons.

Further, these REEs are found in small deposits in nature, encrusted in rock and other geological materials. They are retrieved through the practice of deep open-pit mining, which exacts a large cost in fossil fuels, and leaves in its wake increased air and water pollution. More energy is then used transporting the mined material to an extraction location, where the REEs are separated through the use of water, solvents, chemicals, and toxic metals which can, themselves, leave behind a scarred and polluted landscape.

It’s Time to Go Paperless…The Bottom Line

The bottom line here is not to throw all modern electronics under the bus. I use them and depend on them, and don’t want to sound like a dinosaur here. It’s just that we can only make good environmental decisions if we really understand what we’re doing, and can see accurately the effects of those decisions. As we use better, more powerful electronic devices, let’s realize we are, in the process, driving demand for more REEs, more electricity, and more potential environmental impact as a result.

In doing a bit more digging on this topic, I found a strong point of view on the issue from Don Carli, writing for greenbiz.com.

Proponents of going paperless have waged an effective rhetorical assault on paper-based media that selectively uses “facts” to depict digital media as green and print media as a major cause of deforestation, despite the fact that the ravenous energy demands of cell phones, game consoles, computers, telecommunication networks and data-centers can be linked to some of the most egregious deforestation, environmental destruction and human costs in the United States.

Now let’s take a quick look at what’s involved in producing the paper that all these devices are supposedly replacing. No one would suggest that the production of paper has no implications for the environment. But fairness and intelligent analysis requires that we appreciate the sustainable aspects of paper that the electronic alternatives simply don’t and can’t offer.

  • The first and most obvious is that for paper, the raw materials are trees – a natural and renewable resource that can be harvested, re-planted, and relied upon indefinitely with proper management. But there are other features that give paper unique advantages.
  • Paper is among the most successfully recycled commodities in the world; in North America, it is recovered at a rate of over 65%. And the (re)cycle repeats itself, since paper can be recycled five to seven times into new paper products.
  • In addition, the production process for paper is an environmental success story, with over 65% of the required energy coming from renewable sources such as biomass facilities.
  • Well managed forests help provide ongoing benefits in many ways, such as helping protect air and water, and serving to help mitigate the effects of climate change.

There is no question that the world is changing, and that’s a good thing. But this article really struck a chord with me. As we hear about the demise of “snail mail” in favor of e-mail, the barrage of electronic newsletters replacing printed versions, and even fund transfers replacing paper checks, we need to think a little bit more deeply so that we understand just how “green” those changes really are, or are not.

Electronics Aren’t Going Anywhere ... Neither is Paper

With effective forest management, the most important consideration in assessing the benefits of our new paperless society isn’t the paper that is being “saved” but the additional energy being used and environmental damage being done. The way I see it, this isn’t really an either/or debate.  Electronics aren’t going anywhere, and neither is paper. The challenge – and the opportunity – is in using both as efficiently as possible.

To read full article please click here.

To read Fred Bercovitch’s original commentary, look for it here.


Source: Tim English, Superior Business Solutions, June 30, 2015. Republished with permission.
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