I fielded an email the other day with an interesting rider. “Please consider the environment: print this email and switch off the computer!”
An interesting twist on a modern trope. And it’s not true. A laser print is hideously enviro-unfriendly – not least because it literally dumps carbon into the environment. And photocopy paper is usually made from non-renewable hardwoods, often involving violently toxic bleaching. The laserprinter itself is an e-device, non-biodegradeable and manufactured via processes that also throw toxic chemicals into the environment. It also draws lots more power, when printing, than most computers.
But as a principle, that’s something that should exercise us. We’re relentlessly pounded with it – printing to paper is enviro-hostile, it’s killing forests. Whereas the humble e-book does no such damage.
Or does it?
Lasers aren’t the only way to print. Most books are done via an older process, offset printing. And there’s a vast difference between them. Modern offset printing – if it’s done right – can be thoroughly eco-friendly. First off, it’s centralised to a single machine and factory – not distributed around everyone’s homes, like laserprinters. It’s also softer on forests. Recycled paper works just fine for a typical paperback. Even new paper is often sourced, these days, from renewable wood resources,managed forests that are re-planted as fast as they’re cut. And it’s possible to use vegetable-based inks, which means they’re biodegradable. It’s a marketing advantage for printers to be green.
So – laserprint versus offset print. Offset wins the green race, most times. But what about offset versus e-book?
Look at the e-book. It’s read on a device made from non-renewable materials, some of them brutally toxic – I’m thinking tantalum and other stuff used for micro-processors, not to mention the batteries.
Print books can also last decades, even centuries. I have books up to 100 years old and more in my collection. But e-devices, if you’re lucky, go for just five or six years before something breaks. And we usually throw them away before they’re broken because we’re urged to buy the new models.
What’s more, these things use power. In New Zealand, most of that’s made from renewable resources – hydro and wind. Elsewhere? Coal. Or nuclear. (“Let’s go swimming, the bay’s lovely and warm, and what a nice blue glow…”).
Now, some people are already thinking about the eco-impact of e-books versus offset print. But really we all should. It’s time for a proper scientific evaluation – including evaluating hidden elements as the enviro-impact of transport, which applies both to paper and to e-products.
I suspect they’ll come out similar in terms of net impact. But still, if done right, the print book you’re holding in your hand is biodegradable and made with mostly renewable resource. Whereas e-products contain un-degradeable plastics and toxic chemicals.
That doesn’t mean we should all stop buying e-books. They’re almost certainly one of several ways of the future. And I am sure the e-waste problem will get sorted. But only if we think about it – and start now. Meanwhile, I feel reasonably eco-virtuous when buying a print book. How about you?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2011