by Colwyn Elder (@colwynelder) There are an estimated 2.5 billion people currently online around the world, and this number is expected to increase by nearly 60% in the next five years. For most of us reading this article online, life without the internet is unthinkable, and even those of us who remember our pre-internet days struggle to recall how we functioned without it.

Increased mobility has resulted in increased integration, to the point where ‘online’ is now seamlessly interwoven with our ‘offline’ lives, both at work and at play — the cornerstones being information and communication.

Colwyn ElderNot necessarily

But how green is your internet? If you’ve never stopped to think about it, you’re not alone. Besides, there’s an unwritten rule that says on-screen must be green, right? Not necessarily.

The big issues when it comes to the environment are resource efficiency, waste and energy. E-tickets, e-mail, e-books, e-banking, e-etc, are all associated with the first two, largely based on the assumption that paperless must be more efficient. But what we don’t see is how much energy our online lives actually consume and, unfortunately, the latter can more than make up for the former.

Sadly for the paper industry, we’ve made a seemingly logical link in our brains that says: tangible stuff = waste = bad, and that invisible stuff = no waste = good.

A very direct link

Knowing that paper is made from trees also creates a very direct link with the environment and this is compounded by email signatures telling us to “please consider the environment before printing this email” and requests to “sign up for paperless billing, help the environment and save trees”.

The implication is that digital media is perceived to be environmentally preferable, while print is environmentally destructive.

“In order to make informed and responsible choices”, says Don Carli of the Institute of Sustainable Communication in his report; Print vs Digital Media: False Dilemmas and Forced Choices, “it is important to be critical of claims that digital media is categorically greener than print media. Print and digital media both have positive and negative impacts on the environment.”

Shredding common misconceptions

The Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (PAMSA) is calling on businesses to change their attitude to paper by shredding common misconceptions.

Paper produced in South Africa comes from plantation-grown trees, recycled paper or bagasse (sugar-cane fibre). “Some 600 million trees are specifically farmed for use in pulp and paper manufacturing, just as maize was planted for your morning cereal and wheat for your bread sarmie,” says Jane Molony, PAMSA executive director.

What’s more, over 80% of SA plantations are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), ranking it as the highest level of international certification in the world. Our timber plantations also lock up 900 million tons of CO2 a year by acting as massive carbon sinks.

We’re not always behaving responsibly

In contrast, we are not always behaving responsibly when we send information through the virtual world.

A recent report by Greenpeace, “Clicking Clean”, points out that, if cloud computing were a country, it would be the sixth-largest user of electricity in the world, ahead of Germany and Canada. And this will only increase as demand for anywhere, anytime access to data and services increases.

Surprisingly, reading a document on screen can actually produce more carbon dioxide (CO2) than printing out the same document.

Better to print

It obviously depends upon amount of time spent reading, but data implies that if you were to spend more than 40 minutes online, it would be better to print. A printed document can also be read over again without further emissions and it can be recycled.

“While the paper industry cannot swim against the digital tide and the convenience of receiving documents electronically,” says Molony, “the electronic distribution of information should not be touted as being more environmentally friendly than print.”

Paper is a renewable resource and, rather than being told not to print, we should be reminded to look for the FSC mark of certification. Furthermore, if the rapid growth of the digital economy could be linked to renewable energy sources, the opportunity to catalyse transformative change in the consumption and production of energy could sit squarely within the IT sector.

Strategic consultant Colwyn Elder (@colwynelder) brings a global perspective to the issue of sustainability, having lived and worked in London, Tokyo, Amsterdam and Cape Town. She contributes the monthly “Green Sky Thinking” column on sustainability issues to MarkLives.

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