Thursday, June 25, 2009

International Paper believes that paper is greener than pixels. Is this really the case here?

International Paper published yesterday a press release on a new brochure in their Down to Earth environmental series, entitled "Pixels vs. Paper: Are pixels greener than paper?"

The goal of the 6-page brochure is explained as follows: "More and more people are communicating with electronic media. But are electronic devices the most effective environmental choice for getting information? Get the facts before you decide"

Not surprisingly their findings are favorable of paper use in comparison with electronic devices. But is it really so?

They're looking into couple of factors:

Raw materials
- IP explains that paper comes from a renewable resource - trees, whereas electronic devices are typically made of plastics and other non-renewable resources and often contain chemicals and metals.

They also mention that "every day the paper and forest products industry plants more than three times the number of trees than are harvested -- paper is truly renewable and sustainable."
What they don't say there is what trees are cut down and what trees are planted instead.

Mandy Hagith, author of the recommended book "
Paper Trails: From Trees to Trash - The True Cost of Paper" helps to clarify the picture:

"No one likes to think of trees being felled, but many of us have a cosy image in our heads that it all comes from recycling or "sustainable" woodlands growing in neat rows, perhaps somewhere in Sweden. It's a myth. Globally, 70 per cent of the 335 million tons of paper the world uses each year comes from natural, un-farmed sources. In Canada, the UK's biggest source of pulp, 90 per cent of its output comes directly from its ancient forests."

The planting part of the equation is no better in some cases, as you can read about on the Green Press Initiative's website. Here's one example:

In the Southeast U.S., highly diverse forests are being converted into single-species tree farms at an alarming rate. Already 15% of southern forests (32 million acres) consist of plantations...Tree plantations are not inherently bad, and can be part of a sound forest management plan. However, this is not what is occurring in the southeastern U.S. where vast areas of diverse forest are converted to plantations. Included in this region is the Cumberland plateau, which has been designated as a “biogem” by the Natural Resource Defense Council."

Afterwards IP adds in the brochure that "20 percent less CO2 is used per year by person reading a daily printed newspaper versus a person reading web-based news for 30 minutes a day". They don't quote the resource for this fact, but they make it look very conclusive although there are others who claim the opposite.

For example, one comparison of '
Dear Science' got to the conclusion that "
if you're reading on an inefficient desktop PC, a mere two hours online may equal the carbon impact of the print edition," and another comparison at Fat Knowledge found out that "reading the physical version of the NY Times for a year uses 7,300 MJ of energy and emits 700 kg of co2. Reading it on a Kindle uses 100 MJ of energy and emits 10 kg of co2."

Energy consumption - the brochure mentions that "
The amount of electricity to run a computer for only five months could produce enough paper for the average person to use for an entire year." They also write that "our industry is one of the biggest users of renewable, low-carbon energy in the world".

Interesting fact they don't mention is that "The paper industry is the
4th largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions among United States manufacturing industries, and contributes 9% of the manufacturing sector's carbon emissions." (from '15 Facts About the Paper Industry, Global Warming and the Environment')

End of Life -
According to the brocure paper is biodegradable and nearly 60 percent of all paper in the U.S. is recycled, whereas only 18 percent of all electronic devices are currently recycled and E-waste constitutes the single largest waste export in the U.S. Here are two more interesting facts to be considered: Paper accounts for 25% of landfill waste and one third of municipal landfill waste (from '15 Facts About the Paper Industry, Global Warming and the Environment') and when paper degrades in a landfill it releases methane, a greenhouse gas emission that is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide (resource: The Green Press Initiative).

International Paper encourages you to ask the right questions before you choose between electronic media and paper and they're certainly right. It's important to get all the facts right on the environmental impacts of both options, especially when there are so many misconceptions about the impacts of both paper and electronic devices.

But as the information is still inconclusive, as we can tell from watching this debate for some time (you are welcome to check our eBooks vs. Paper Books to check research and articles on this issue), it is important to bring ALL the facts and not choose only those that are a good fit with your business.

If IP really wants as they say to "provide thought provoking educational pieces that help our customers better understand important environmental topics", they should add to their brochure some more facts that will give readers the whole picture and not just parts carefully chosen from it.


Raz @ Eco-Libris