A couple of months ago, a representative from some public interest group rang my doorbell and tried to get me to sign some petition or other and give them money. I declined, not necessarily because I disagreed with their positions, but because I refuse to encourage door-to-door canvassing. I told her this, much to her chagrin. I asked for their URL and said that I would investigate them on my own—and I even pointed out to her that print direct mail would be far preferable to someone coming to my door and interrupting whatever it was I was doing. (Those deep, utterly profound comments aren’t going to tweet themselves, you know.) She then quite haughtily said that they do not send out print mail because of their “commitment to environmental responsibility.”

So I ran back inside the house to get a glass of water solely so I could return and do a spit-take. Okay: what was the carbon footprint of the phalanxes of door-to-door canvassers who drove their cars, quite probably rather long distances, to suburban neighborhoods like mine? Is the environmental impact of a print campaign worse than all their cars’ carbon emissions and other negative environmental effects (for example, ever wonder where the rubber that wears off tires goes? As “Ask Marilyn” pointed out many years ago, it settles as rubber dust on the sides of roads and elsewhere in the environment)? 

Granted, I don’t know for certain what these respective environmental impacts would be. But then I would imagine, neither did she. And there are far too many variables involved to quantify it with any reasonable accuracy. But it is by no means a clear case that print = evil. In fact, there is evidence that suggests that it may be quite the opposite.

I discuss this issue at length in a special WhatTheyThink report I recently completed called Printing Continues to Go Green: An Updated WhatTheyThink Primer on Environmental Sustainability in the Commercial Printing Industry.

I was reminded of this earlier today when Dr. Joe sent around a blog post from the New York Times that posed the question, “Are E-Readers Greener than Books?” citing the results of a Cleantech study that claimed that e-book readers such as the Amazon Kindle have less of an environmental impact than printed books:

The report indicates that, on average, the carbon emitted in the lifecycle of a Kindle is fully offset after the first year of use. 

The report, authored by Emma Ritch, states: “Any additional years of use result in net carbon savings, equivalent to an average of 168 kg of CO2 per year (the emissions produced in the manufacture and distribution of 22.5 books).”

I did another spit-take about that.

First of all, we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that pixels are somehow pure and and holy and that that paper is the spawn of Satan. (Although some mills do have a grade they refer to as Satan Uncoated, used for printing really evil documents like insurance forms and Ayn Rand novels.) Let’s be clear about this: electronic media do have a carbon cost. In fact, earlier this year, a Harvard physicist made headlines when he managed to calculate the “carbon cost” of a Google search. The BBC, among others, reported: 

US physicist Alex Wissner-Gross claims that a typical Google search on a desktop computer produces about 7g CO2. 

The Harvard academic argues that these carbon emissions stem from the electricity used by the computer terminal and by the power consumed by the large data centres operated by Google around the world.

Oh, and a 2007 Gartner Group report warned about the “carbon cost” of all the servers that comprise companies’ intranets and the Internet in general:
The intense power requirements needed to run and cool data centers now account for almost a quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions from information and communications technology.

Then there are all the discarded computers, peripherals, cell phones, PDAs, pagers (does anyone still use a pager?), iPods, and so on. Says one of a brace of reports on the topic published in Scientific American in 2007:
Two years ago [2005], the U.S. generated an astonishing 2.6 million tons of electronic waste, which is 1.4% of the country’s total waste stream. Only 12.6% of this so-called “e-waste” was recycled. Worse, e-waste is growing faster than any other type of trash the EPA regulates, including medical and industrial waste. Unwanted cell phones, televisions, PCs (including desktops, laptops, portables and computer monitors), computer peripherals (including printers, scanners and fax machines), computer mouses and keyboards amounted to more than 1.9 million tons of solid municipal waste in the U.S.; of that, more than 1.5 million tons were dumped primarily into landfills, whereas the rest was recycled, the EPA says..

The EPA acknowledges that toxins in electronics are a problem, but says there’s no need to panic–at least, not yet. [S]ays Clare Lindsay, project director for the EPA Office of Solid Waste’s extended product responsibility program. “The presence of some toxic materials does not create a crisis. We believe that landfills can safely manage most of these waste products. Is it the best idea? No, the better way is recycling. But we haven’t seen any contamination of ground water associated with electronics discarded in landfills.”

Less than 20% of electronic devices discarded between 2003 and 2005 were sent to recycling facilities; the rest were dumped and mostly ended up in landfills. In 2005 about 61% (107,500 tons) of cathode-ray tube (CRT) monitors and televisions collected for recycling were exported outside the U.S. for remanufacture or refurbishment, the EPA says. That same year, about 24,000 tons of CRT glass—which is filled with lead to protect viewers from the x-rays produced by the monitor—was sold to markets abroad to replace damaged CRTs in various countries, and North American waste and recycling companies recovered about 10,000 tons of lead (meaning it was not placed into landfills or incinerated).

An added benefit of recycling electronic materials—be they copper, lead or silicon—is that we will not have to mine as much from the earth, says Bob Dellinger, the EPA Office of Solid Waste's director of hazardous waste identification. “In essence, recycling stretches the raw materials we have available,” he says. A lot of energy is wasted in the mining and refining of raw materials. For example, only 4% of copper ore is usable, the rest is waste.

As for the e-reader business, yes, it’s becoming more and more common for print-based media to come under fire (fire which pollutes) for being environmentally irresponsible. I think it’s rather a silly argument; sure, paper cuts down trees, but trees are a renewable resource. It also bears mentioning here that one of the driving forces behind the various “Do Not Mail” bills coursing like a bolus through various state legislatures is the spurious claim that printed mail is environmentally unfriendly. See, for example, the ornery http://donotmail.org that claims that “It takes more than 100 million trees to produce the total volume of junk mail that arrives in American mailboxes each year.”

However, the paper and pulp industry plants 1.7 million new trees per day, which equals 620.5 million new trees planted per year, for a net gain of 520.5 million trees annually. That’s a lotta trees. So I’m not entirely certain what the problem is. And even vegetarians—and vegans—kill plants. I mean, who hears the cry of a carrot? (I do; is that weird?)

Let’s also not forget what is used in the manufacture of e-readers. And come to think of it, what is used in the manufacture of e-readers? And how many first/second-generation Kindles are going to end up in landfills in the next few years where, unlike paper, there is no possibility of their biodegrading (not that paper always does, but at least it's physically possible). And depending on the batteries, they may also leach toxins into the groundwater. At least with printed books, all you really have to worry about is toxic prose (oh, but I kid Dan Brown).

I also love the line, from the New York Times post:

Cleantech’s measurement “takes into account the fossil fuels necessary to deliver to the bookstore and the fact that 25–36 percent of those books are then returned to the publisher, burning more fossil fuels.”

Well, you know, I used to work in book publishing, and I can safely say that nothing would please publishers more than reducing the number of books that are returned. In fact, what would eliminate bookstore returns? People buying more books!

My point is, all human activities have some kind of environmental impact. To single out print as being especially heinous is not fair, when an argument could be made that all media negatively affect the environment in one way or another. The decision to use any given medium is a function of a variety of decisions, and the transition from print to electronic media began long before environmental issues took center stage. For all the palaver about companies adopting digital media to be environmentally responsible, in most cases, it’s little more than an economic decision (i.e., e-media are cheap or free; print is expensive). There are also issues of timeliness, relevance, personal preference, and all the other usual suspects that drive media and communication trends.

But it’s the perception that print is environmentally irresponsible that hurts the most.