Is email better for the environment?

Paperless systems are very popular these days.  Paper is made from trees, and although trees are a renewable resource, they take a long time to grow compared to the amount of time we might use a sheet of paper.  Recycling paper uses a lot of chemicals, energy, and water, although it is still less wasteful than making new paper.  Getting away from all that paper use into a nice clean electronic system is better for the environment, right?

Usually, yes, it’s somewhat better.  It bothers me, though, to hear people talking virtuously about all the stuff they do on their computers or smartphones, often via Internet, as if that has no environmental impact at all.  If I nudge, usually they’ll acknowledge that their device uses electricity and therefore contributes to pollution from power plants.  For most people, though–including myself, on a typical day–the Internet is kind of magic; it’s just there, or you might be aware of connecting to it but not think of it as having any physical existence.  Dude, the Internet is an enormous collection of enormous server farms using an enormous amount of electricity!  Every time you use it, you’re zapping a little energy all around the world, not just on the device in front of you.  It’s a lot harder to see than a bag of garbage, but your paperless activities do create some waste.

The article “How Green Is Your Tech?” thoroughly explains the environmental impact of email and how you can reduce it.  Here’s the basic staggering fact:

Basically, each year the average person emails an amount of carbon equal to the exhaust of a 200-mile car ride. Looked at from a different angle, all the emails sent scurrying around the Internet in a single day generate more than 880 million lbs. (that’s 44,000 tons!) of carbon per day.

The impact of a single email is 4 grams of carbon, about as much as a sugar packet.

After reading this article, I began to visualize my emails as little black packets thrown on the grass.  It’s gotten me to send somewhat fewer emails and avoid CC-ing to people who don’t really need to be in the loop.  Learning that attachments add weight to those black packets motivated me to put documents my boss needs to see on the Local Area Network and email him the location of the document, instead of saving the document on my hard drive and attaching a copy to the email.

The bigger change I’ve made, though, is to unsubscribe from mailing lists that I wasn’t reading.  I realized I was in the habit of simply deleting, unread, the messages from that hotel “frequent guest” program I apparently joined when I stayed in their hotel once, that charity whose petition I signed four years ago but whose day-to-day activities don’t fascinate me, that blog where I posted one comment last year and it automatically started emailing me every comment on every article on her site including all the spam, and so forth.  Now that I see every one of those messages as a black packet tossed on my green grass, it feels worth the effort to scroll down to the bottom of the message and click “unsubscribe”.  Yes, that action loads a Webpage, tossing another black packet or so, but once it’s done that particular entity will stop throwing packets at me.  I was horrified by just how many sources were junking up my inbox, once I started paying attention.

And now that I’m on fewer annoying mailing lists, a larger proportion of my email is stuff I actually want to read!  That makes me happier about the email-checking experience and saves time.

As for other “paperless” things that a lot of people do by poking the PocketFox or computer, I do a lot of those things on scrap paper, giving that paper another use before it hits the recycling bin.  Unless I use tape or staples, this has zero environmental impact, and I can do my stuff during a power failure without worrying about using up my charge!

Reducing my email and thinking twice about paperless systems works for me!  Visit Waste Not Want Not Wednesday for more waste-reducing ideas!

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About 'Becca
author of The Earthling's Handbook, about the environment, parenting, cooking, and more!

5 Responses to Is email better for the environment?

  1. You didn’t answer the question you started with: is email better? Better than what? Postal mail? Where are the equivalent estimates for grams of carbon to send a postcard? or an entire magazine? Without making that comparison, it sounds like you’re debunking a claim that sending an email *improves* the environment, which I haven’t heard anyone make.

    In any case, email is a tiny tiny drop in the bucket compared to video streaming, which accounts for some 50% of all Internet traffic. http://www.thewire.com/technology/2013/05/netflix-youtube-traffic/65210/ And while a few of us may miss the days of walk-in video rentals, apparently streaming or renting by mail is actually better for the environment than those fixtures of the ’90s were: http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/9/5/054007/article

    Food for thought!

    • 'Becca says:

      Better than postal mail. That’s the assumption most people make. In a brief search, I did not find an article that gave the kind of clear yet succinct analysis I was looking for, but the estimates I saw ranged from 20 to 28 grams of carbon per paper letter mailed, so that’s more than email.

      The article that inspired me includes the point that email is often used instead of walking a short distance to speak in person, especially in offices. There is no environmental impact to walking, and it’s good for our health, so that’s better than email.

      I have not heard anyone claim that sending an email actually improves the environment, but the assumption that it has no negative effect seems widespread, even among environmental charities when they’re encouraging us to email politicians or sign an online petition–but of course, they rarely mention the environmental impact of their paper mailings, either, except for noting the use of recycled paper and soy-based inks.

      You have a good point about video streaming, and thanks for the informative links! I do miss video rental shops (there were FIVE within a mile of my house, all gone!) but Daniel pointed out a while back that we can get almost any movie from our local used-DVD store, watch it once or more, and sell it back to the store for the same net cost as we used to rent movies. Or we can just not spend our time watching movies, which has been about 80% of our approach to the issue for the past decade, and that works pretty well! Anyway, now that I think about it, in addition to all the plastic involved in videotapes, DVDs, and their packaging, all those rental shops had to be heated/cooled, workers transported there, customers transported there if they weren’t combining it with another errand…it adds up.

  2. Marian says:

    This is a really informative post! I’ve understood that the internet isn’t innocuous (environmentally speaking) for a while, but I’ve never seen the numbers connected with that. I’m a visual person as well; you see black packets, I see puffs of smoke…

    Back when we (somehow) got a lot of catalogues in the mail, I went through the effort of unsubscribing because I was concerned about the paper, etc. I definitely need to do that now for my emails, as I’m getting a lot of stuff from stores regarding sales that I never ever act upon. I don’t do a lot of shopping, but it seems to me that cashiers now seem to be asking for email addresses in a different way. They used to say, “would you like to give us your email…” and now they simply say, “what’s your email…” and for me, at least, it feels like that’s now somehow an integral part of the transaction. But of course it’s not, and I simply need to say no thanks, you don’t need my email!

  3. Count me in as one of the people who’ve never considered the environmental cost of email. At first I felt something in my chest sink: Is there nothing I can do that doesn’t have an impact?!? (Yeah, probably not. Which I need to realize.) Like, what is it costing to post this comment? I think, for me, I will try to look at it the way I looked at use of AC back in August: I’ll try to find ways to reduce/minimize my use. Your suggestion to unsubscribe is a great one. It’s really a multiple win for me. And to get up and walk to talk to someone at work–love that one, too.

    • 'Becca says:

      Yes, minimizing unnecessary use is really the way to go. If you try to have no impact at all, eventually you become like that religion where you eat only fruit, and don’t walk in case you might step on a bug, until you are enlightened enough to starve to death, and even then I’m not sure what they do with their bodies….

      Until I first read about the server farms, I really had only considered the impact of the electricity used by my computer being on, and didn’t think about the fact that more energy is used when data zaps around among computers than when I am working offline. Now I am wondering whether more energy is used by leaving a browser open in the background (because I’m going to come back to it at my next break) while I work on something else, than by quitting the browser and later launching it again…aargh….

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