Many companies continue to encourage (and sometimes force) their customers to switch from paper to electronic communications, using claims that electronic communication is “greener,” “saves trees,” or “protects the planet” as justification. One can only conclude that the CEOs of these companies are either:
1) misinformed about the inherent sustainability of print and paper, the rapidly expanding environmental footprint of digital communication, or both,
2) trusting marketing teams who don’t bother to validate environmental claims, or
3) seeking to save costs by ignoring established environmental marketing standards from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, the Competition Bureau of Canada, the UN Environment Programme, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO 14021), the World Federation of Advertisers and others that say marketers should not make broad, unsubstantiated environmental benefit claims like “green” and “environmentally friendly,” and that all environmental claims must be supported by competent and verifiable scientific evidence.
Growth of Electronic Devices and E-Waste
There’s no arguing that the use of electronic devices has exploded over the last decade. According to a 2021 study by the Pew Research Center, the vast majority of Americans (85%) now own smartphones, up from just 35% in 2011. Nearly three-quarters of US adults now own desktop or laptop computers, and roughly half now own tablets. This boom has resulted in many advances that make our lives more efficient, productive, and enjoyable. But it has also brought with it serious and increasing environmental, health, and economic consequences.
According to the most recent Global E-waste Monitor (GEM), a record 53.6 million metric tons (Mt) of electronic waste was generated in 2019, up 21% in just five years. For perspective, this e-waste weighed as much as 350 cruise ships the size of the Queen Mary 2, enough to form a line 76 miles long. The GEM describes e-waste as discarded products with a battery or plug. Small electronic equipment, screens and monitors, small IT and telecommunication equipment comprised more than half of global e-waste in 2019. The US and Canada collectively generated 7.7 Mt of electronic waste. That’s 46 lbs. per person, and nearly three times the worldwide per capita generation of 16 lbs.
The report also predicted that global e-waste will reach 74 Mt by 2030, almost a doubling of e-waste in just 16 years. This makes e-waste the world’s fastest-growing waste stream, fueled by higher consumption rates of electric and electronic devices, short device life cycles and few options for repair. Many people now view electronic devices as ultimately disposable, simply discarding them when it’s time for an upgrade. Others may hold on to them, but are unable to find a cost-effective way to repair them.
Little E-Waste Is Recycled
The GEM found that only 17.4% of e-waste was collected and recycled globally in 2019, with only 15% of e-waste in North America recycled. Most e-waste was either dumped or burned rather than being collected for recycling and reuse.
Numerous toxic and hazardous substances are found in electronic equipment and pose severe risk to the environment and human health when not handled in an environmentally sound manner. Recent research cited in the GEM found that unregulated e-waste is associated with increasing numbers of adverse health effects, from birth defects and altered neurodevelopment to DNA damage, adverse cardiovascular and respiratory effects, and cancer.
E-waste also represents a huge economic loss. When electronic devices are simply thrown away, high-value, recoverable materials such as iron, copper, and gold are thrown away with them. “If we cannot recycle electronic waste, we’re not taking back materials into the loop, which means we have to extract new raw materials,” says Vanessa Forti, the lead author of the GEM. It’s estimated that the value of raw materials in all global e-waste generated in 2019 equaled a staggering $57 billion US, more than the gross domestic product of most countries.
Electronic Communication, Energy Consumption, and Climate Change
The miniaturization of equipment and the “invisibility” of the infrastructures used leads many to underestimate the environmental footprint of digital technology. This phenomenon is reinforced by the widespread availability of services in the cloud, which makes the physical reality of use all the more imperceptible and leads to underestimating the direct environmental impacts of digital technology.
Global tech giant Cisco estimated that by 2023, North America will have 345 million internet users (up from 328 million in 2018), and five billion networked devices/connections (up from three billion in 2018). The US Department of Energy reports that US data centers consumed an estimated 70 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) in 2014, representing about 1.8% of total US electricity consumption, with estimated 2020 consumption at around 73 billion kWh. This energy consumption does not include the energy required to drill and mine for raw materials, build, power, or recharge the devices.
According to The Shift Project, a carbon transition think tank, the energy consumption required for digital technologies is increasing nine percent each year, and the share of digital technology in global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions could double to eight percent by 2025.
The Contrasts Between Electronic and Paper Communications Are Well-Defined
The magnitude of the negative impacts resulting from the use of electronic communication should be cause enough for companies to abandon their unverifiable greenwashing claims that going digital is better for the environment, but the comparison with paper-based communication should seal the deal for those that are committed to responsible marketing practices.
- Paper is made from an infinitely renewable natural resource – trees that are purpose-grown in sustainably managed forests. Contrary to myth that forests are shrinking, US net forest area expanded by approximately 18 million acres between 1990 and 2020 (UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 2020 Global Forest Resources Assessment).
- With a recovery rate of 68%, paper is recycled more than any other material in the US (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – EPA).
- More than half of the energy used to manufacture paper in the US comes from renewable carbon-neutral sources, mostly biomass (American Forest and Paper Association – AF&PA).
- The US pulp and paper industry is responsible for only 0.6% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (U.S. EPA).
- The US paper industry has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 24% since 2005 (AF&PA).
- The water used to manufacture paper in a typical US paper mill is recycled eight to 10 times. It is then cleaned to meet strict federal and state water quality standards and is returned to its source. Most of the rest evaporates back into the environment, with about one percent remaining in the manufactured products (National Council on Air and Stream Improvement – NCASI).
- Approximately 98% of the chemicals used in in the kraft papermaking process are recovered and recycled (NCASI).
Kathi Rowzie is President, Two Sides North America. This information previously was shared on their blog, www.twosidesna.org.
This article originally appeared in the March/April, 2023 issue of Mailing Systems Technology.