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!