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Carbon footprint myths - print vs digital

Which is better for the environment?

We are constantly told by clients that they want to reduce their carbon footprint and hence they are cutting back on printing.

Friends tell us that they are saving the environment by using e-readers rather than buying books.

They are all kidding themselves.

The reality is they want to save money by using or buying digital products. They hide the fact by claiming they are being environmentally conscious. The truth is the opposite.

Print and digital lifecycles

The accurate way to look at the different eco credentials of print and digital is to consider the lifecycle of each.

Both use large amounts of electricity. For example the USA papermaking industry used more than 75 billion kilowatt hours of electricity in 2006 according to the Department of Energy.

However, USA 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.

When you consider that desktops and notebooks run on 200 and 70 kWh/year respectively and there are 2 billion connected PCs and notebooks and 7 billion mobile devices you can see that digital energy consumption far exceeds papermaking.

The carbon footprint of the iPhone

It’s hard to get data on the carbon footprint of digital devices because the industry actively conceals the full supply chain usage. Some information recently released by Apple shows the lifecycle carbon footprint of an iPhone. This shows that it emits 55kg of CO2-equivalent green house gas emissions over the course of a three-year expected lifetime of use. This equates to the emissions of 12, 100-watt light bulbs glowing for 691 hours, or a car engine burning 2,300 litres of petrol.

On the other hand Discover magazine estimates the lifecycle carbon footprint of each copy of its publication is responsible for 950gms of carbon dioxide emissions, the same amount produced by 12, 100-watt light bulbs glowing for an hour, or a car engine burning half a litre of petrol.

Printed books vs e-readers

Lifecycle analysis of printed books versus e-readers shows the energy, water, and raw materials needed to make a single e-reader is equal to that needed for 40 to 50 books. This means the emissions created by a single e-reader are equal to roughly 100 books.

If you read 100 books on your e-reader before upgrading it, the climate effect is no different than reading the printed versions. However if you upgrade before that time, your carbon footprint actually increases compared to reading printed books. Research conducted by the New York Times shows that people upgrade e-readers on the average of every two years.

Saving the environment or saving money?

While the environmental benefits of going digital may not be entirely clear yet, it certainly carries cost savings for companies.

And it's the bottom line that really motivates companies to reduce or eliminate their paper documents by going electronic.

The eco bottom line is that paper can be recycled, recovered, and reused. Recycling programs are widely available and the processes have become more efficient and sophisticated. For instance in Australia households recycle 95% pf their paper products.

Using recycled paper instead of paper made from virgin tree fiber reduces environmental impact of a print design project by minimising carbon emissions, water and energy consumption, and solid waste sent to landfill.

Printers have worked diligently to provide safer working environments for their employees by switching to lower emission solvents and inks. Digital printing, or print-on-demand, is also a greener option for small-run printed material because it wastes considerably less paper and requires less energy to operate.

Together these efforts are making the print and paper industries significantly more socially and environmentally responsible. Compare that to the work practices of mobile device assembly plants in China.

Printed paper is also a form of carbon capture. If you're concerned about the cost of processing your waste paper - bury it.

By burying paper you permanently capture the carbon. Try that with your Kindle.


Greg Branson
Design Business Council

Greg’s passion is the research and development of methods that improve design management and the role of design in business.

Greg has developed a series of processes and tools to help designers manage their business better along with a series of workshops that show designers how to use these tools.