Thursday, April 29, 2010

Comparing the carbon footprint of a search on Google and a Yellow Pages directory

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!


Unknown said...

You say "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."

I think this is seriously undercounting the impact of the Yellow Page directories because they are so huge. You would need to get further information about size of the books ETCI and Cleantech are using.

In another section of your analysis you say "For our analysis let's calculate it as 100% post recycled paper." But it's not 100% post recycled--(at least not the one I get) it's only 40% post-recycled, a fact I was only able to dig up after much tedious searching on their Web site. (see below.)

"Our books are printed on paper containing up to 40% post-consumer recycled fiber
When available, the remaining paper content comes from wood chips and pulp—waste products of the lumber industry"

The good thing to come out of all this is that I noticed the number on the first page of the directory (1-800-888-8448) that you can call to opt out of getting a paper directory and I called it. Hopefully I will not get one next year.

Anonymous said...

It was nice to follow your thoughts. Did you consider the amount of water to produce the new and recycled paper? And also the amount of diesel and CO2 to transport and deliver all the Yellow Pages?
Google for instance should invest in some Green opportunities like Ocean Tide, Eolic and Sun Energy. It would even reduce the footprint!

Raf said...

Great study; If you don’t mind I’d like to comment it

You have estimated that finding the right name with a computer can be done in less than 1sec (time of a search)!!

Let introduce in the internet YP, the whole process. We have basically:
0) start the computer (5min, ok, it can be optional)
1)launch the explorer, search for YP website on Google and open it (30 sec)
3)write the name, address, etc, launch the search (1 min)
4)if you're not lucky, you may have many results, and if you don’t know all data you have to try until you find the good one (5 min -10 min)
5) close internet and maybe the computer (2 min, optional too)

So we have a consumption of electricity due to the time passed on the computer. Let's say 10 min for the whole process.
Then we have the consumption due to search engines: 2 search at least (1 Google, 1 YPwebsite) if we make no mistakes (!)

--> searches = 0.0003 kWh*2=0.0006 kWh (your data)
--> 10 min computer at 100watt (screen & central unit)
= 100*0.17hours = 0.017 kWh

Sum = 0.017 + 0.0006=0.0176 kWh --> 17.6g CO2.
17.6g * 12.10^9= 211,200 tons of CO2.
So 1,254,960 tons of CO2 vs. 211,200 tons of CO2 --> Computer still win but just 6 times higher!!

Now imagine what could happen if we take into account the PRODUCTION and the END OF LIFE of a computer VS a YP paper made directory
Computer: a lot of toxic heavy metal, copper, rare components, plastic (oil), glass, etc...
Paper YP directory: paper, plastic, ink (already taken into account on your study!)

Of course you don’t buy a PC to search on YP, but if you know the number of yearly searches * time of one search AND if you know the Pc yearly use (3hrs/day, (ref : EcoInfo / ├ętude EuP - ISSN 1404-191X; & French ADEME)). Then you can extrapolate the %time you use to YP searches.

A last thing: YP directory: nearly 100% renewable energy!!
computer: nearly 100% fossil energy!!!

Raf said...

mistake last line:
paper= nearly 100% renewable ressources (wood), and not energy like I wrote!!!

CritiKill said...

Thanks for that BRILLIANT article Raz. It's painful to see how people can try to defend the indefensible as Raffael tries to do. For starters, you don't even need your PC to get online anymore to do YP searches as nowadays, you can simply whip out your phone.

This exact problem is the reason the website is is existence and in need of your support.

Anonymous said...

You'll want to add a facebook button to your blog. I just bookmarked this article, although I had to complete it manually. Simply my $.02 :)

- Robson

Albert Kaufman said...

Great article, thanks. What's a phone number?

btw, we're working on moving to an opt-in system for phonebooks in Oregon. Supporters welcome: - also, SF is moving to ban the YP altogether, which is probably an even better idea.

Anonymous said...

This was a very interesting approach to the phone book issue area. I certainly appreciated the life cycle analysis angle that this article took but I thought it was a bit of an apples and oranges comparison; consumers have a choice to look for businesses using a search engine, but do not currently have a choice to opt-out of receiving a phone book. The yellow pages takes away the freedom of choice that using an internet search engine provides, so I view these as two vastly contrasting products that should not be seriously considered for comparison. All unused phone books represent a waste of resources and environmental harm that have provided no tangible benefit to consumers while the (virtually negligible) environmental footprint of an internet search provides a consumer with information that was actively sought after. This article was still an informative piece, but the comparison between internet searches (which are inherently desired by consumers) and phone books (which are delivered without solicitation to all consumers,a large number of whom have no need for such a product/service) is fundamentally flawed. There was also a news story on this topic last night; the video and article can be found on the following page:

Anonymous said...

I think you will want to get a facebook icon to your website. I just bookmarked the site, however I had to complete it by hand. Simply my 2 cents.