Which is greener, a printed or digital piece? Naturally it depends on who is being asked. Talk to a paper manufacturer and he will certainly support printed communications as much more sustainable. Ask the CEO of a web hosting company and she will make the case for digital work.
In a recent article on WhatTheyThink Blogs: Going Green Richard Romano discusses a study recently conducted in Finland which concludes that a printed newspaper is more sustainable than an online version (Romano). Similarly Don Carli from the Institute for Sustainable Communication rightly points out that “Computers, eReaders, and cell phones don’t grow on trees and their spiraling requirement for energy is unsustainable” (ZDNet). Others propose that digital design is the greener solution. A recent report indicates that, on average, the carbon emitted in the lifecycle of a Kindle is fully offset after the first year of use (Stein). So what truly is the greener option?
The Case for Print
The most recognizable proponent of paper communications is the website Print Grows Trees (PGAMA) produced by the Printing and Graphics Association MidAtlantic. They, along with other sources, argue the many environmental benefits of printing on paper.
Paper can be recycled, recovered, and reused. Recycling programs are widely available and the processes have become more efficient and sophisticated. For instance, in 2009, 63.4 percent of the paper consumed in the U.S.A. was recovered for recycling (EPA). Using recycled paper instead of paper made from virgin tree fiber reduces environmental impact of a print design project by minimizing 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 VOC 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.
According to Print Grows Trees (PGAMA), the paper we use to print in the U.S.A. is made from more than 60 percent biofuels. Many paper manufacturers listed in the Re-nourish Greener Printer database are producing paper from solar, wind, and hydroelectric power while eliminating harmful chlorine bleaching processes. These steps help to produce greener paper for printed materials.
In contrast to paper, the PGAMA points out that digital work requires tremendous amounts energy to power the server farms to keep the seemingly endless streams of online data live and the machines cool. In fact the average data center uses enough energy to power 25,000 homes. Connected to this carbon emissions issue, Don Carli also writes how digital may not be as green as you think. In his 2010 GreenBiz article (Carli), he details how online digital solutions result in greenhouse gas creation from the server farms that host them, that server farms are most often powered by coal mined through mountaintop removal and that this process is connected to deforestation, and hazardous waste (ewaste) is the end result of our technology craze.
In addition to these concerns addressed by Carli and PGAMA, Re-nourish also recognizes the environmental hazards from mining minerals used in circuitry, the toxicity of circuitry in computer technology, the energy used to power manufacturing plants and shipping is mainly fossil fuel-based, and the poor working conditions and health hazards for international employees making computer technologies. Mercury and lead present in computer parts (Earth911), even in small amounts, are highly toxic to plants, wildlife, and humans (NRDC). Planned obsolescence is another concern with digital design. The lightening speed at which software and hardware become obsolete, or repairing too difficult, make it necessary to purchase new equipment often.
The Case for Digital
As the paper industry takes aims at its nemesis, digital design, through awareness ephemera and (ironically) websites like Print Grows Trees (PGAMA), digital advocates raise valid points regarding the sustainability of digital outcomes. For instance, digital projects use fewer resources than printed material. It requires no paper fiber sourcing, zero energy in paper manufacturing or fuel in final product shipping. The screen does not require ink coverage or printed materials and all the energy and water required for those items’ production.
Energy consumption is an important consideration in digital design. As mentioned above, server farms require enormous amounts of energy, however, more and more companies are powering their server farms with renewable energy sources eliminating much of the greenhouse gas emissions. In the studio, advancement in technology is allowing equipment to be manufactured with a smaller environmental footprint. Buyback and recycling programs are becoming more popular with computer and equipment purchases.
Digital-only projects could be considered greener than even environmentally-friendly certified paper options. Much of the FSC and SFI environmentally-certified paper is sourced from tree farms. These plantations are not forests. A forest is a complex, self-regenerating system, encompassing soil, water, microclimate, energy, and a wide variety of plants and animals in mutual relation. Tree farms are corporate-owned monocultures which lack the biodiversity of forests. Many tropical forests have been converted for timber production causing dire consequences for tropical biodiversity (Gibson, et al.). These single-species plantations deplete the soil of important nutrients, requiring harsh chemical fertilizers and herbicides to maintain. The runoff from these chemicals pollutes streams, rivers, and groundwater. Tree farms have also been known to strip local communities and indigenous people of the goods they relied on from the natural forests.
Does Digital or Printed Design Win the Greener Crown?
In most arguments, this debate revolves around the end result of print or digital design. The focus of these discussions has been on materials and waste with print versus the hours a user spends online consuming energy reading digitally. What we’re not seeing discussed is the design process. Printed pieces do not simply pop out of a press from nowhere in the same way that digital designs do not appear online without a little work involved. In both cases designing is usually done, for the most part, on the computer. Whether it’s print or digital design, hours are spent researching online, creating digital mock ups, emailing, writing, sending files, and working digitally. Whether or not the work is finished at the digital stage, or the files are sent off to a printer, working on screen is embedded in all of visual communication design.
One simply cannot just compare the outcome of the print or digital design options as they are small components of a larger supply chain. To accurately determine what is greener would involve complex calculations of all the impacts of a system of integrated lifecyles. In the end, redesigning our energy portfolio, our transportation methods, and how our materials and technology are made and recycled/disposed are necessary to make both print and digital greener.
by Eric Benson & Yvette Perullo
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