Following my post on the Yellow Pages directories, I received an interesting question on LinkedIn:
All this is based on the idea that internet & generally dematerialization is more "eco-friendly" that the old paper-way. Are we sure about that? Sustainable business is full of "false good ideas". Is there any comparative LCA (Life Cycle Analysis)?
This is a great question and since I am not familiar with such a life cycle analysis I decided to prepare one of my own. Of course not all the data is available and I made couple of general assumptions on the way, but I hope that you will find the results valuable.
OK, so here we go:
For our comparison we will use the figure 12 billion searches, which is the number of annual searches made using the printed directories as reported by the Yellow Pages Association ("People reference print Yellow Pages directories more than 12 billion times while Internet Yellow Pages sites receive 4.6 billion references each year").
Option 1: Google search
So what's the carbon footprint of 12 billion Google searches?
Following an estimation of Dr. Alexander Wissner-Gross that was published on the Times Online on January 2009 (5-10g of CO2 per a search), Google announced Google that a Google search produces about 0.2g of CO2. Aleksandr Rudkevich, Vice President in the Energy & Environment Practice of Charles River Associates, analyzed Google's input and explained that this is an average figure. He calculated the worst case scenario (from a pollution point of view): "Applying this to the Google spate earlier this year, if the Google search is powered by coal-fired generation, the 0.0003 kWh of electricity it requires will result in about 0.3g of CO2 emissions, or 50% above Google’s average estimate." We'll use this figure for our analysis.
The equation therefore is: 0.3g x 12 billion = 3600 tons of CO2
Option 2: Yellow Pages directory search
1. Every year, according to Paperless Petition, 540 million directories are distributed in North America. I'll take off 30% of this figure, as the sustainability report claims that "The demand for directory paper has declined 29 percent since 2006". 540M X 70% = 378M
2. I don't have the carbon footprint of an average directory, so I'll use available data to get a good estimate. According to the Environmental Trends and Climate Impacts report, the carbon footprint of a book is 8.85 lbs. The Cleantech's report says it's 16.4 lbs per a book. Let's do an average - 12.63 lbs per book, or in grams - 5,729 grams (5.73 kg) of CO2.
To be fair, let's consider the fact that the directories are "containing 40% recycled content. The other 60% comes from "residual chips," a byproduct of sawmills left after logs are converted to lumber.". For our analysis let's calculate it as 100% post recycled paper. Using the EDF paper calculator, we find that we need to deduct 42% of the initial calculation of 5.73kg as usage of recycled paper has a much lower carbon footprint. So, the equation is: 5.73 X 0.58 = 3.32 kg of CO2
3. Our final calculation is: 378 million x 3.32 kg = 1,254,960 tons of C02
[Please note that even if you use the number of 130 million directories that I used initially, based on information on the Yellow Pages website that for some reason I can't find now, you receive a carbon footprint of 431,600 tons of CO2).
Bottom line: Using Yellow Pages directories to make 12 billion searches has a carbon footprint that is 348.6 times higher (!) of using Google on your computer for the same purpose. Again, it's 1,254,960 tons of CO2 vs. 3600 tons of CO2. I believe these figures speak for themselves.
Raz @ Eco-Libris
Eco-Libris: Promoting sustainable reading!