Tired of hearing the younger generation brag about reading their books on e-readers or cell phones? Many abandon newspapers and magazines, alleging they are “saving trees!” Other techno-enthusiasts disparage your driving or flying to a conference as they brag how environmentally-friendly their video-conference was. Well, their economic calculations are downright wrong.
According to a Climate Group report, the mobile phones, computers and printers, and all the servers and ancillary equipment that drive the computer and online operations are emitting 830 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. That is about two percent of the manmade carbon footprint and equivalent to all the world’s aviation-generated CO2.
And it makes sense. The person reading a book on an e-reader is constantly drawing electrical power from either a household outlet or a battery. Reading a paper book uses no electrical energy at all.
And the pollution and environmental costs include both materials to make the medium and the ongoing energy-use combined. Electronics loses on both counts.
One downloaded “book” on an e-reader is stuck on that one machine, not transferable to others, and will soon be obsolete. About one-fourth of the energy consumed by computers and electronic devices is in their manufacture; about three-fourths is spent in their ongoing use. And their lifespan is fleeting.
Printed books are far cheaper to produce, consume no energy in their use, and can last for centuries. Printed books are often given or sold as used books, serving many readers before they are ultimately recycled as paper.
“Save a tree” by switching from paper to electronics? Paper is a renewable resource and the paper companies plant efficient and fast-growing trees for the pulp industry.
But very little of the metal-and-plastic mobile phones, computers and ancillary equipment is “renewable.”
And lifespan? Hardware and software turns over in 5–6 years. Kids are trading in cell phones on a monthly basis! Thrown in the junk bin twice a decade, our “old” electronics contains some of the world’s most problematic toxic wastes, including cadmium and lithium batteries.
The Climate Group report estimates that electronic-related emissions will increase about six percent per year through 2020 as more people own a personal computer, mobile phone, or broadband internet connection.
Next time the techno-enthusiasts brag they are “saving a tree” by going paperless, point out that they are the ones using up far more natural resources and energy. And that the paper pulp forests planted to generate our paper are helping to offset their bigger electronic carbon footprint.
John Richard Schrock trains biology teachers and lives in Emporia.