I’ll start with a story:
Yesterday I went shopping. At the cash register the cashier asked if I would like my receipt e-mailed to me or printed. “E-mail it to me, please,” I said, without thinking much other than the fact that paper is bad for the environment, so why not. The cashier replied, “Go green.”
This interaction happens a lot. I choose not to receive a receipt when filling my car up with gas. I choose to complete my readings online rather than printing them out. Others, take their notes on their computers rather than in notebooks. We call and text instead of writing letters and notes. We have even moved to receive our newspapers online. Go green.
I honestly never really thought twice about what this could mean, had never really placed a word to it, until I stumbled upon this Sci-Fi short-film depicting life without paper, a life that disregards history and only looks ahead. From a history standpoint, I do wonder how a paperless society would effect our desire and ability to look back to the past and learn from it, remember it. From an environmental standpoint, I wonder whether a paperless society would actually take a greater toll on our resources. I turned to Google for answers, genuinely curious whether I was doing the right thing by turning down receipts, whether the society type we are headed towards is actually worse than I imagined. The majority of sites I stumbled across referenced the billion trees that are victim to paper waste, the environmental advantages of saving trees, and the paper industry emitting the fourth highest level of carbon dioxide among manufacturers. The fad of going green has created a heightened sense of environmental awareness in past years and essentially, societal pressures have caused us to abandon our use of paper in every way possible to help the environment, either that or we must not care about the environment at all.
After much digging, however, I found the answers I was looking for. Looking past the face of the environment as we know it, where paper=killing trees=killing animals=bad, we have entered a new world where deforestation as a result of going digital has taken on a life of it’s own. A PBS article stated:
What is less widely known is that mountaintop-removal coal mining is also a major cause of deforestation, biodiversity loss, and the pollution of over 1,200 miles of headwater streams in the United States […] It’s somewhat ironic that print media and the paper-making industry are so often targeted for “killing” trees while digital media is so often characterized as the greener “environmentally friendly” alternative. While its record is by no means perfect, the North American forest products industry has made great strides in the adoption of sustainable forestry and environmental performance certification practices. In addition, the majority of the U.S. paper industry’s power and electricity needs are derived from renewable biomass that is sourced from sustainably managed forests. On the other hand, digital information technology’s dependence on coal-powered electricity that is derived from mountaintop removal goes largely unreported.
Thus in fact, the larger issue lies within our ability to use technology sustainably. Going paperless in an ideal world would be greatly beneficial to our Earth, a place that is already subject to constant stressors as our population continues to skyrocket. However, our world is not ideal, and in fact, research shows that Information and Communication Technology networks could be 10,000 times more efficient than they are currently. Our e-mails, computer screens, and internet use emits e-waste, a pollutant just as strong as carbon dioxide release from making paper. It is not e-mail over print that will save our resources. Rather, it is the means by which we continue into the technological age. Global adoption of sustainable print and and digital media is the means that can restore our planet. As we talk about the disruption of media, I want to focus upon an environmental disruption. A change in energy sources will allow us to be more sustainable for longer. This form of disruption is crucial, and it requires us to be informed on where our print and digital media is coming from.
Side note: I highly recommend reading the PBS article in full for sources on choosing sustainable print and digital media sources.