11/27/2016

(sources: 1, 2)
In the zero waste community, going paperless is a widely discussed topic. While there are different approaches as to how reduce you paper consumption exactly, everyone agrees that replacing paper- consuming behaviours with digital behaviours is more ssustainable and greener. On the surface, this really makes sense: paper has to be produced endlessly over and over again, it's production causes deforestation and it is processed with aggressive chemicals as well. Digital use, however, only requires one object, the computer, that lasts almost forever.
I doubt that.

I don't exactly know, what triggered it, but since a short while, I was thinking about whether digital was really better than paper. So I researched.
And today, I want to examine in detail, what is better for the enviroment: digital or on paper?
(my question is not about e.g. books vs kindle or newspaper vs digital newspaper, but about the paper, we use to write on (for note taking etc.)

So first of, we need to examine the steps in using each medium that may or may not cause enviromental damage. To represent digitality, I will take the laptop as an example.
As for paper this is the production of it,  the transport, the usage (consuming pens as well) and the recycling process. For the laptops the steps are similar: production, transport, using it (using power and connections) and recycling.

1. production
paper: The first ingredient to start producing paper is wood. The basis for paper is for about one third of the paper whole trees and other plants that are planted for this purpose, for another third from wood chips and scraps from sawmills, that may or may not have been produced soley for paper. The last third comes from recycled paper. (source). Other ingredients that are used to make papers are bleachers, fillers, sizings and dyers, that are more or less toxic depending on the kind of paper.
(source)
These materials are then mixed together to make the pulp, squeezed, pumped and finished by being rolled up. This mechanism is completely technicalized, so made by machines. (source)
To have a comparable factor, I will list, how many gallons of water each step takes. According to this website Producing one sheet of paper take 3 gallons of water. Likewise, this website claims that recycling one sheet of paper saves 3.5 gallons, so we will go with 3 gallons of water to produce a sheet of paper. This amount, however, may be influenced by using recycled paper from more responsible sources. When assumed that someone uses 6.000 sheets of paper a year for 7 years, this would be 126.000 gallons of water.
(source)
laptop: In contrast to paper, the laptop needs way more different materials than paper. Materials include different kinds of plastic, different metals like steel, silver and gold, glass, silicon or gallium, quartz and others. (sources: 1, 2) The ingredient list changes according to the laptop model, but it is always long and always contains plastics, metals and chemical ingredients, one struggles to pronounce. That itself is not inherently bad, but we have to ask ourselves, where these materials come from. They either evolved from mines, in chemical laboratories and manufacturing factories around the world (source). A lot of materials have to be taken from deep places in the earth, often using extreme heat or pressure. Most of the materials also come from a lot of different countries. For further information how the manufacturing process exactly goes, check out this website.
After the materials have been "gathered" and prepared to be processed, they have to be put together to form a laptop. This is most of the times made in China. As this graphic shows, the vast majority of laptops is actually put together there. And, let's be real, we all know, how the people there work in assembly lines. (more information).
Different assumptions state, that it takes 88- 7.300 gallons of water to make a computer (sources: 1, 2), what can also be proven by this list of how much gallons of water it takes to make certain materials for a computer like steel or plastic. So, I will go with an assumption of 4.000 gallons of water
If we consider also manufacturing the package and the accessories for the laptop we might be around 4.002 gallons of water to make a laptop. With this manufacturing process, however, we also have an issue since the materials exploited from the earth are partly not renewable and the way of production may be considered unmoral as well.

2. transportation
(source)
paper & laptop: Once the paper is manufactured, it has to be transported to its purchasers. I did not found representative numbers about this step, but one can assume that transporting heavy paper over long distances will use a lot of energy to. To make a direct comparison to the laptop, the laptop that you purchase once weights ca. 2 kilo grams, with package and accessories maybe 2.5 kilo grams. One sheet of paper, in comparison weights ca. 4.5 grams. When trying to compare these measurements, we already come to the first problem: When we assume that you use the laptop for 7 years, it is pretty much individual, how much you use it for e.g. not taking. Likewise, it is difficult to assume how much paper you would use in this time. This two sites (1, 2) claim that an office worker uses ca. 10.000 sheets of office paper per year. For a "normal" person, we might assume around 6.000 sheets of paper, so 27.000 grams to transport, what is 189.000 grams for the 7 years, you use it instead of the laptop.
If we assume that it takes 1 gallon of water to transport our laptoptransporting the equivalent of paper would take 75.600 gallons of water. But again, these are average assumptions, that can be changed by the way, each medium is used.


(source)
3. usage
paper: Using paper does not take up energy as such, but one needs pens to do so. Unfortunately, I did not found a single study on this value. Using this list of materials and this list of water for ingredients, I assumed that making the pens and materials needed for 7 years takes around 1.5 gallons of water.
laptop: Using a laptop, however, constantly consumes electricity, mostly powered by not renewable energies, like coal. This is often achieved by so- called mountaintop removal, where the coal- rich top of a mountain is broken down step by step. (more information) After all, the energy for powering a laptop comes from power plants, that consume a lot of energy itself.
(source)
If we take the assumption, that it takes around 4.500 gallons of water to power a lightbulb 12 hours a day for a year (source), I would take this measure 7 time (7 years) and triple it in the assumption that this is how much a laptop needs to be powered. This makes 94.500 gallons of water.






4. recycling
(source)
paper: Around 80 % of the paper, we use is recycled (sources: 1, 2), what then goes back to step 1. The rest ends up on landfills. Not recycling also leads to deforestation, because the paper need can no longer be served by recycled paper. While this does not actively need water to be produced, it is definitely significantly negative for the enviroment, pollution the air, poisoning soil etc. So I will go with a representative of 5 gallons of water for this step.
(source)
laptop: Recycling a laptop without long- term effects is not possible. Since the materials have been exploited from the earh with a lot of pressure (see step 1), they are not going to go back to the earth as easily as paper can. While some plastics and metals are recycled (using a lot of energy for transporting by the way) (source), a lot of laptops end up in "electronic graveyards" in Africa. (source with important information). 40% of the "e- waste" there are computers and phones. There, people have to handle these materials, sort them out and try to make a little money out of them, mostly unprotected and receiving very little payment. Here, again, we have not only economical damage but also morally incorrect actions caused by the purchase of a laptop. Here, I also did not find a representative number of gallons of water, this progress (including transportation and shipping) takes, so I will make a representative number of 80 gallons of water.


In total, this makes (for a usage of 7 years):
(As said multiple times, this numbers are dependent on the way od usage and treatment.)
paper: 201.605,5 gallons of water
laptop: 98.583 gallons of water 


Conclusion
The numbers speak for themselves: According to my calculations, it takes almost twice as much water to produce and power a laptop for the same amount of a paper used in that time. In contrast to paper, however, the laptop leads to actions not very moral, that involve humans and and can barely be measured in numbers. This may, however, be avoidable when searching for a computer from a more suistainable source and checking its recycling. Even with digital usage having "succeed" here, it is still important to save digital energy as well.
So will I now do and end this blogpost.

(other articles on this topic (that came to another conclusion): 1, 2, 3, 4)

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