St Nicks

Centre for nature and green living

The Paperless Society – An Ecological Bargain?

St Nicks volunteer Aiden Heeley-Hill expands on his previous blog post to explore the implications of a paperless society and whether this shift really will reduce carbon emissions.

In my last blog post, I outlined the benefits of switching from paper memos to digital emails as the best way of non-verbally communicating with colleagues. This time, I’m shifting the focus away from the office to our general, everyday lives.

The concept of a paperless society is one that has been around since the late 1970s, originally coined by Frederic Wilfrid Lancaster. However, this concept has become more realistic than once thought, with the advent of smartphones and tablets. Now, we are able to browse newspapers, monitor bills and analyse documents on the move and at our leisure. We can even read the Entire Works of Shakespeare on our e-readers. Never before has so much information been available at our fingertips.

Paper has been used by society since time immemorial, having been invented by the Chinese during the

The oldest surviving book, Phi Yü Ching, was written in 250AD, China.

The oldest surviving book, Phi Yü Ching, was written in 250AD, China.

Han Dynasty (206BC to 220AD). Its use spread west along the Silk Road with European paper production and manufacturing originating in Iberia. The first British paper mill was opened in 1490, but the first commercially successful mill was set up nearly a century later in 1588. Historians estimate that there are over 10,000 uses of paper in the world today, from teabags and paper money production to labels and postage stamps, far removed from its original use as wrapping. Perhaps one of its most famous uses is in the Japanese craft of origami, the art of paper folding, for Buddhist services in the 6th century. In 2011, the worldwide production of paper and cardboard was estimated at 400 million tonnes, with half of that being used in China, Japan and the United States.

A former British paper mill (c.1800) based in Oughtibridge, South Yorkshire.

A former British paper mill (c.1800) based in Oughtibridge, South Yorkshire.

However, by the late 20th century, paper was under threat from technological advances, such as the internet and emails. With governments being quick to adopt this new technology, it was predicted that paper would soon become obsolete. The benefits seemed obvious, being able to send and receive near instantaneous messages without the need of a printer, being able to read documents without having to order a paper copy, no more chopping down of vast forests. With laptops, desktops, tablets, e-readers and smartphones, one has to question the environmental impact of producing such devices. How many greenhouse gases are produced? What kind of materials are needed for their production?

At first glance, electronic devices appear to have the upper hand in the sustainability stakes. In its production, a tablet will produce 231lb/105kg of carbon dioxide, whilst e-readers will produce 370lb/168kg. By comparison, a single book will produce 9lb/4kg of carbon dioxide. After 40 reads on an e-reader, the carbon emissions will be offset, meaning the e-reader becomes the more ‘eco-friendly’ option. However, after digging a little deeper, this digital future is not as rosy as the figures suggest. Tablets and e-readers are produced using toxic materials, such as arsenic and mercury, and once the lifetime of the product comes to an end, disposed items are frequently sent to landfill, where these toxic materials are left out in the open to leach into the surrounding environment.

An e-reader is a popular choice for holiday-makers and commuters.

An e-reader is a popular choice for holiday-makers and commuters.

In the UK, it is estimated by the government that we discard around 2 million tonnes of electronic waste per year. Where are these used items disposed of? Some recyclers strip any valuable materials from the electronic items, and then ship the remaining equipment to developing countries, such as China and India. Unfortunately, much of this equipment is stockpiled and not dealt with in the correct manner, having potentially disastrous effects on human health. Not all recycling firms are the same though. Some are registered with e-Stewards, where there is a guarantee that the items will be dealt with in the country of disposal.

Now we know what is required in electronics production, maybe it is time to see what goes into paper. Approximately, 17 trees are needed to produce 1 metric tonne of paper. Each tree requires 490 litres of water for growth, with a further need of 190 litres to make paper. For each tonne of paper, 25,000 litres of water, 10,061 kWh of electricity and 3,091 litres of oil is required. Paper production is evidently very energy intensive! Alternatives do exist and are being developed; hemp, cotton and kenaf seem to be the most promising.

The paperless society is something which has been in the making for a number of years, and is now more in reach than ever before. However, emissions and pollutants are of real concern as electronic devices replace our newspapers and books, which is highly convenient with our on-the-move lifestyles. Paper itself is an energy intensive product that requires a great deal of water, electricity and oil, but is something that has been around for hundreds of years. Evidently, industries have much to learn regarding greener production of paper and electronics.

9 April 2015 | Categories: Inspiration