Paper or digital: a better environmental impact?

“Don’t waste paper” and “think before you print” are phrases many of us have heard throughout our lives, warning us against excessive paper waste. The belief is that the less paper is used, the more trees are saved, and the more environmentally friendly we are. However, the digital alternatives to paper may not be as environmentally friendly as one may have assumed.

In the years 2010 to 2020, 4.7 million hectares of forest have been lost according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. The pulp and paper industry contributes to this loss of trees, being responsible for 13-15% of total wood consumption globally. Since forests act as natural carbon sinks, the destruction of them can lead to an increased rate of global warming as more greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere instead of being absorbed.

These forests are not only important as carbon sinks. Forests provide protection against floods, landslides and soil erosion, as well as being the habitat for a large range of plants and animals. The loss of forest habitats contributes to the rapid extinction of species.

Unsustainable paper and pulp operations are especially negative. Not only do they contribute to deforestation, but in places where land tenure systems are weak, they can cause social conflicts by local or Indigenous communities protesting forest license issues over their claimed traditional lands.

In terms of environmental impact, paper and pulp manufacturing not only requires the destruction of trees but the energy consumption is high. The high amounts of energy used in the process come from a variety of sources, one such being fossil fuels. Therefore, not only does the paper and pulp industry destroy natural carbon sinks, but they also contribute to the emission of greenhouse gases by burning these fossil fuels for their high electricity usage.

Water usage is also high: water consumption in the paper industry ranges from 6 to 17 litres of water per kilogram of paper produced. Water is also contaminated in paper mills, where pollutants are discharged into surrounding water bodies, threatening the health of people and the aquatic ecosystems near the mills.

So, if the manufacturing process for paper is so environmentally negative, what are the alternatives? In the modern age, most people turn to digital alternatives. Where one used to use paper, a phone or laptop can be used. This includes studying, making shopping lists, and sending messages, to name a few. But is this better than wasting paper?

Phones, computers and laptops, if able to access the internet, use cloud computing as a way to process and store digital resources. It came into use in the mid-2000s and has been growing ever since. From iCloud to OneDrive, most digital storage sources use cloud computing.

However, cloud computing facilities and data centres need vast amounts of electricity to both power the hardware and the building operations. Between 2015 and 2019, the global digital sector increased energy consumption by approximately 6.2% per year, which is expected to double every 11 years.

On top of its high energy consumption is its high water waste. Cloud computing runs on central machines which need to be kept cool, achieved via air conditioning and water, which leads to high water waste. For example, the average Google data centre consumed approximately 450,000 gallons of water per day in 2021.

This water waste is only expected to increase with the rise of AI services. For example, every 20 to 50 queries on ChatGPT uses half a litre of fresh water, which is then lost through steam emissions.

Recognising the issues in both paper use and digital storage complicates things for those who want to decrease their environmental impact as there seem to be no environmentally neutral options. However, paper and digital storage should not be immediately dismissed, despite their drawbacks.

Paper manufacturing is not entirely negative. Paper is biodegradable, meaning that paper waste is less damaging since it will break down over time without leaving behind harmful residues. Paper waste is also easier to avoid due to many places having infrastructure in place to recycle paper and other materials.

Despite being a cause of deforestation, paper manufacturing can sometimes promote carbon storage. When well-managed, forests used for paper production act as sustainable carbon sinks.

Digital applications via cloud computing are also becoming less environmentally damaging. Many cloud providers have pledged to reduce their environmental impact. For example, Google is already carbon neutral for its operations with aims of being carbon-free at all its data centres by 2030. Meanwhile, Amazon Web Services aims to use 100% renewable energy across its operations by 2025 alongside its target of reaching net-zero carbon by 2040. Whether these companies are meeting their sustainability claims is under growing scrutiny.

Paper or digital? Both are proven to be environmentally damaging alongside possible benefits. In a world where climate change is ever present, it is difficult how one can best avoid such disastrous consequences through one’s own actions.


Featured image: Steve Johnson via Pexels

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