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Information damages the environment

Is an electronic newspaper more ecological than a paper newspaper?

Image: A newspaper stand. Image in the public domain.
Image: A newspaper stand. Image in the public domain.
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Newspapers and magazines don’t have a sustainable image because lots of trees have to be cut down to produce them; but electronic publishing is not always more ecologically friendly. The Swedish Royal Institute of Technology made a life cycle analysis of both distribution systems (PDF, heavy download) and has come to some remarkable conclusions.

The ecological score of an electronic publication is determined by the reading duration.

Calculating the ecological impact of newspapers and magazines is not an easy task. There is no agreement on what should be taken into account, and how exactly the ecological damage should be calculated. For instance, do you include the energy use of people that go buy their newspaper by car? And if you do, how should this be measured? They may also be picking up some groceries on the way… Do you take into account the energy used for producing the laptop on which one reads an electronic publication, and if you do, which part of that is allocated to the online newspaper, and how much to other applications like the reading of e-mail?

Reading duration

The more people read the same paper publication, the smaller the environmental impact of one copy becomes. The environmental harm takes place before the reading process starts: wood clearing, paper production, printing.  On the contrary, the damage done by an electronic publication only starts during the reading process. With every reader and with every minute of reading, the energy use grows.

The reader uses energy to read the information, while the publisher uses electricity to make it available. Also, the distributing of bits and bytes over the internet is done by machines (routers, hubs, optical switches) and therefore requires energy. Moreover, all these machines also have to be produced, and electronic trash is a bigger problem for the environment than paper garbage. On the other hand, an electronic publication does not have the problem of unsold copies – a fact that weighs heavily on the environmental score of paper publications.

Although the Swedish researchers emphasize that much more research is needed, they have come up with the conclusion that an electronic newspaper is more damaging to the environment than a paper newspaper from the moment the reading length exceeds 30 minutes – taking the view that this paper newspaper is read by 2.4 people.  If a newspaper is just read by one person, then the electronic version is more eco-friendly as long as the reading duration stays below one hour and a quarter. Of course, the environmental score of a reader that prints the articles from an electronic publication is not getting better. According to the researchers, reading a publication on an e-book scores better than on a computer, since the energy consumption is lower. (Picture: Amazon Kindle)

Magazine or newspaper?

The scientists compared electronic publications with newspapers. Paper magazines score worse than newspapers, because they hardly make use of recycled paper. That even applies to magazines which fully dedicate themselves to the preservation of nature, like National Geographic. On the other hand, recycling is not a miracle solution: paper can only be recycled a couple of times and that process costs energy and water. At least as important is the question whether or not virgin paper is made of durably grown trees, or not.

Whichever way you look at it, mass communication damages the environment. Let that be a stimulus to leave behind nonsense and non-news.