Paper or Pixels. Which has the biggest footprint?

By Becca Newman

How can such a short yet conscientious graphic designer make any kind of difference to the bigger picture? But ‘less is more’ I reminded myself and if 100million people made one small change that would equate to… well a revolution if you ask me. So to reduce my environmental impact I look at which, paper or pixels has the biggest carbon footprint.

All carbon footprints are hard or impossible to pin down accurately, but the internet is a particularly complex case. This isn’t just due to the fact that the “net” consists of millions or even billions of machines owned by countless people and companies. Of which even if we knew exactly how much energy all these devices consumed, we still wouldn’t know how much of that energy was spent on offline jobs or how much was spent on online jobs.

“On average, one broad leaf tree will absorb in the region of 1 tonne of carbon dioxide during its full life-time (approximately 100 years).”

So going paperless seems like the obvious choice. You can recycle paper and source it form sustainable producers. That is a good start I thought, to reduce my paper usage would help so I stoped all unnecessary printing and tick yes to all ‘paperless’ options because no bank statements equal less paper production therefore less trees being cut down so reducing my impact on the environment.

However less paper usually means you are using the internet more.

The internet – and anything digital – may feel light and airy. For example: Your little ebook now replaces an entire library. I don’t need an alarm clock, a watch, or a calculator you just use your smartphone. Behind these digital solutions making our lives lighter, there is a very big problem. The internet, and our usage of it, is not so light at all.

Digital doesn’t mean green

The internet as a whole currently accounts for 2% of global emissions. That’s the same as all global aviation. Another stat shows the internet releases around 300m tonnes of CO2 – as much as all the coal, oil and gas burned in Turkey or Poland in one year, or more than half of

On the other hand, the internet is likely to be crucial to any move to a low-carbon world. Without its capacity to carry the huge flows of energy data, there could be no “smart grid”, for example, and without online video conferencing it would be much harder to reduce the number of business flights in coming years. Ultimately, then, it’s not just technological developments that will affect the growing carbon footprint of the Internet. Just as important is how we choose to use it.

To put this in perspective: loading the average website uses up the equivalent amount of energy as boiling a kettle for a cup of tea.

So moving as many processes as possible over to digital solutions seem like the obvious solution however, the environmental impact of digital media should also be considered just as the use traditional use of paper.

Both paper and digital media have environmental issues in common…

• Energy and water used to create them
• Transportation of both raw materials and the finished product
• The environmental cost of manufacturing plants, warehouses, shops selling these products, data libraries and more.
• The extraction of raw natural materials for their creation
• The environmental impact of recycling at the end of the product’s lifetime.

The paper-making process is certainly sustainable. In the UK our target recycling rate for paper, as set by the EU, is 60% – however, in 2016, a total of 81.9% of paper waste was recycled. In addition, the government has a long-term aim to have 12% of England’s land area covered by trees in 2060: a target that could see paper sustainability increased yet further.

Both printed and digital mediums have their place

There’s no magic bullet unfortunately to the carbon footprint and sustainability issues, digital is not the planet-saving medium that some would suggest it to be. We need to be mindful of our environmental impact with all mediums.

The benefits of digital mediums are considerable, but it very much depends what your objective is and who your target audience is. There’s something irreplaceable about print; holding something beautiful and tactile, opening a carefully constructed and neatly wrapped, and having something physical and tangible to keep are qualities that cannot be replicated in digital. As a medium it’s more sustainable and environmentally than ever before, and when executed responsibly with Carbon footprint in mind, should not be ignored.


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