In a world where human impact is leaving a bigger and bigger footprint on our planet, isn’t it time we looked for a more eco-friendly solution?
Shouldn’t we be looking for an option that is carbon-neutral, sustainable, energy-efficient and has a lower carbon footprint than the alternatives? Isn’t the goal to find a renewable alternative to fossil fuel-derived products like plastic, and materials which are fully biodegradable and leave behind no toxic residue? Isn’t it our responsibility to choose something that is well-regulated and has a positive social, economic and environmental legacy, while ensuring what we choose will last, is versatile and is a cost effective option?
Wood ticks all these boxes and many more. So isn’t it time we stopped asking “why should we choose wood?” and ask, “why aren’t we?”
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Putting an end to the paperless debate
Greenpeace co-founder Dr Patrick Moore put it best when he said:
“We should be growing more trees and using more wood. If landowners had no market for wood they would clear the forests away and grow something else they could make money from instead. When you go into a lumber yard, you are given the impression that by buying wood you are causing a forest to be lost, when in fact what you are doing is sending a signal into the market to plant more trees.”
So, why in the 21st century are we doing exactly the opposite?
The move from paper to digital at first glance appears to make total sense. Emails, e-billing, e-books, e-banking and e-statements allow us to live increasingly
For some people and companies, the ‘e-’may stand for ‘electronic’ and ‘efficient’ and – quite incorrectly – ‘environmentally friendly’ too. Everyday we see, ‘think before you print’ email footers that appear to promote electronic communication as being greener than printing and paper. But is this true?
Tackling the greenwash
When we compare the environmental costs associated with the daily use and production of both mediums and their subsequent disposal, the common ‘keep it green, keep it on-screen’ opinion gets a little shaky. If you’re asking whether electronic communication is more environmentally friendly, two things need to be considered:
- The energy required in the production and use of equipment (and data transmission)
- Its disposal.
DAILY USE: paper vs digital
Printing an email or document might require some additional energy during the printing process – this is a clear cost. But what is not so clear are the energy costs associated with powering e-clouds and storing our digital lives. Greenpeace pointed out in its 2012 ‘Clicking Clean’ report that if cloud computing were a country it would be the fifth-largest user of electricity in the world, ahead of Germany and Canada!
We don’t often think about the carbon footprint of print vs digital, but with CO2 being a major greenhouse gas and contributor to climate change. Perhaps it’s time we did.
The 2006 Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change demonstrated this brilliantly by comparing the CO2 emissions associated with the printing of a 700-page review versus reading it on screen for an hour, or burning it onto compact disc (CD).
Printing the 700 page Stern Report – one copy – 85g of carbon dioxide
Read the Stern Report online – one hour – 226g of carbon dioxide
Burn Stern Report onto a CD – one copy – 300g of carbon dioxide
It may come as a surprise that the printed version came out best, being responsible for less than half the CO2 emissions associated with reading the report online.
The reason for this is that once printed, the document could be referred to over and over again, without further emissions. Opening the same document on-screen multiple times consumes energy, which means more CO2 emissions.
The report went on to say that sending a 50kB email results in the same amount of emissions as posting a 10g item, certainly something worth thinking about every time you attach a 2MB photo to an email.
The nostalgic sentiments around ‘snail mail’ aside, these facts show that although digital’s carbon footprint may be hidden, it’s just as real and may in the long run leave a larger impression.
PRODUCTION: paper vs digital
When it comes to production, it’s a battle of renew able resources versus fossil fuels.
The farmed trees used for pulp and paper manufacturing rely on renewable resources: sunlight, nutrients and water. Water naturally has an used environmental cost – but not anywhere close to the water used in growing other arable crops that require irrigation. The trees themselves are also renewable. For every tree that is harvested for timber or paper products, another 1.5 are planted in its place. Only a small portion of mature trees are harvested each year, ensuring a sustainable supply of fibre and a constant carbon sink.
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On top of this, trees generate the oxygen we breathe and act as carbon stores, mitigating climate change long after they are felled. The exclusive use of plantation forests for timber and paper products in South Africa also ensures that indigenous trees are protected.
DID YOU KNOW?
80% of the land reserved for plantation forestry in South Africa is certified by the international Forest Stewardship Council ® (FSC ®) – the highest in the world. End-users can rest assured that the wood their paper comes from is derived from plantations managed in an environmentally, socially and economically sustainable way.
Many mills supplement or support their power needs with renewable biomass-based energy and combined heat and power. In South Africa, 1.3 million tonnes of carbon emissions from fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) are avoided annually through the production and consumption of renewable energy.
In contrast, the manufacture of digital technology is heavily reliant on fossil fuels, although there are companies that use renewable energy for their data centres and cooling systems.
The good news is the trend towards fibre or cellulose-based components (sourced from trees) that will replace plastic produced from oil and coal, silicon and glass. In the future, cellulose and nano-fibre technology could result in foldable computers and transparent touch screens, making computers more green.
DISPOSAL: paper vs digital
Recycled paper products not only serve as a raw material for new paper products such as newspapers and packaging but keep the carbon locked up for longer in their fibres.
When paper is not re-used or recycled, it adds to our already overextended landfill load. This is bad for the environment even if it is biodegradable as it releases the carbon that was stored in the paper. By recycling paper and cardboard, this carbon is locked up for longer. Paper and board can be recycled 6-7 times before fibres become too short for use in manufacturing.
Here in South Africa, we reclaim 68.4% of recoverable paper and board, and while there is room for improvement, we should give ourselves a pat on the back for being well above the global average of 58%.
According to The Annals of Global Health, e-waste is becoming the fastest growing component of municipal waste worldwide and is a far greater landfill risk than any mountain of biodegradable paper will ever be.
According to Greenpeace, e-waste makes up 5% of landfill waste, the same as all plastic packaging, only a lot more hazardous. Not only will e-waste sit in landfills for generations due to its non-biodegradable nature, the toxic nature of its components pose a real threat of heavy metals, hazardous chemicals and plastic residues leaching into the soil and groundwater systems. Not to mention the negative impacts plastic has on a vast array of species, in particular marine animals.
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