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Digital vs. Paper: Green Guilt

07.12.2021

How storing information on paper or online impacts the environment

Every action, whether printing a document or saving it to the cloud, impacts the environment.

As Covid-19 crisis sequestered us to live and work through screens, printing documents to ease the strain on screen-tired eyes has become appealing.  The world rapidly shifted to remote working, learning, and living; the questions regarding everyday technology products’ impact on the environment came to center stage. Now, as we slowly exit the worst of the Covid-19 crisis, and the dust is settling, it is time to reflect on our usage decisions and evaluate which option is greener, and when.  The tangled complexities of business practices, record-keeping laws, and the cost of maintaining information all impact our decisions.

Look at the Lawyers

To understand the environmental impact of paper usage, an example of a typical law firm is key.  By their very nature, law firms use more paper than any other sector.  The average lawyer uses anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 pieces of copy paper annually.  On the higher end, that’s nearly 50 pages an hour.  Lawyer’s don’t do this because they’re anti-green, there are strict record-keeping laws.  Digital record keeping of important documents, such as motions, are secondary to the numerous paper copies required.  These copies held by the law firm are not only mandatory for them, these copies must also be held by the courts, the opposing law firm, and any other involved parties.  This literally produces stacks of boxes of paper.

If the aforementioned lawyer were to relocate the 100,000 paper file online, it would require at least 10 GB (inclusive of back-up and additional space).  A multi-lawyer law firm would require 10 GB per lawyer.  To put this in perspective, this is equivalent to 500 hours of internet browsing, 64 hours of music streaming, 80 app downloads, or 2,5000 downloaded songs.

The Environmental Impact of Both Options

Although law firms are an extreme example, the average office worker still uses approximately 10,000 pieces of paper a year.  Shockingly, 45% of this paper ends up in the trash by the end of the day.  A typical S-Corporation spends an annual $120 Billion (USD) on printed forms.  70% of businesses would fail within three weeks if they were to experience a catastrophic loss of paper due to a natural disaster.

This information provides a foundation to analyze the macro-level impact of typical business consumption.  The world produces 300 tons of paper every year.  This requires upwards of 15 billion trees to be cut down annually.

Paper production doesn’t only kill trees, according to Toner Buzz, “Pulp and paper is the third-largest air, water, and land polluter among all industries in both Canada and the US.

The pulp and paper industry releases over 100 million kilograms of toxic pollution every year….Paper manufacturing produces nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides, which contribute to acid rain, and carbon dioxide…”  These statistics are scary, but prior to jumping on the digitalization train, it’s important to understand the impact of a transition to digitalization as well.

The Global Information & Communication Technology (ICT) system has a massive and negative impact, so bad that it’s in the same sphere as the entire aviation industry’s fuel emissions. Both the carbon footprint from our gadgets and the airline industry are both estimated to be between 2% to 3.7% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Even more worrisome, these emissions are predicted to double by 2025 for both industries.

How do websites and digital storage pollute the environment?  The information must be stored somewhere; these data centers gobble up electricity, often powered by fossil fuels.  There’s a price for every decision.

Going Green

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed (and horrified) after being presented with all this information.  Fear won’t fix climate change, acceptance and action will.  Here are some things you can do both as a consumer and business to mitigate the environmental impact you have.

  • Here you can calculate how much digital storage you need based on your paper files if you’re looking to make a transition
  • Click here to calculate your website’s carbon footprint
  • Tips for your website from Ben Clifford, Founder and Director of erjjio studios
    • Check to see if your website is hosted in a data center that uses fossil fuel electricity or renewable energy
    • For more tips and detailed explanations, read this
  • Check out the Green Web Foundation for a complete list of green website hosts
  • Tips as a consumer from Ben Clifford, Founder and Director of erjjio studios
    • Delete emails that you won’t need again, to prevent them being stored unnecessarily
    • Unsubscribe from email newsletters and mailing lists that you never read
    • Delete apps on your phone that you don’t use
    • Delete redundant screenshots and photos from iCloud or other cloud drives
    • Use your phone for quick internet searches instead of a laptop, it requires less energy
  • Check out Ecosia, a search engine that plants trees!

Making the Choice

Consumers and businesses don’t necessarily have to decide whether to be fully online or paper-based.  Using the calculators and resources in this article, more informed decision making is possible.  If you’re interested in entire digitalization, continue to research positive opportunities such as green web hosts to start.

If law requires you to keep paper copies, see where you can buy paper made from recycled materials as opposed to trees.  With mounting complexities in situations such as these, often, there is no perfect answer.  What we can do is enforce a collective and action-oriented effort towards mitigating our detrimental impact.

Ask yourself the following:

  • Do I really need to print that? If so, can I do it with recycled paper? A clear power source?
  • Am I using clean, renewable energy to host my website, personal files, and company information?
  • How do my emails, texts, and social media interaction impact the planet? Is it really worth it?

Sources

Image
  • Pixabay

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6 Comments

  1. Sarah

    Crazy thing that not only lawyers follow the principle of double documentation though paper and clouds but that our governments do so as well …. Is that really necessary?

    Reply
    • Komoneed

      Thanks for your comment! There are certain countries which have begun to change this “historic” behaviour

      Reply
  2. Anna

    Another point to mention here is that the use of paper instead of cloud also effects the level of productivity in offices. Having to search for documents in endless folders and files stored at the office takes up so much time !

    Reply
    • Komoneed

      Thanks for your comment! That’s true… a big truth!… It is an inherited behaviour that we must change… technology is moving faster than our ways of doing things.

      Reply
  3. Lily

    I love the resources – thank you for providing such a hands-on approach!

    Reply
    • Komoneed

      You are very welcome! Hope to see you back soon!

      Reply
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