The Dirty Little Environmental Secrets Print Haters Don’t Want To Talk About

First I need to acknowledge our long-time industry “advocate”, Mr. Ed Kohler for his recent analysis comparing the carbon impacts of print Yellow Pages to online or computer searches. It’s commendable that he would spend such time and energy to do the research.

However, when you start with an orientation that’s predisposed against print, it didn’t take long for Mr. Ed to leave off a whole bunch of key factors in his analysis to tilt his result towards the environmental merits of electronic over print. Let’s look at some of the dirty little secrets that print phone book haters don’t want to talk about.

What gets largely ignored by those that despise print directories is that all of these electronic products we are suppose to now use instead of print have a far more significant impact on the environment than print. The life cycle for a paper/print product has been well chronicled in numerous places so I’m not going to go through that here.  Instead let’s take a look at the complete lifecycle of a computer or the many other electronic products which have certainly become an integral part of our lives today.

Raw material extraction:  Computers contain many mid-metals and other raw materials such as lead, sand, copper, oil, gold, and natural resources that are rudely extracted from the earth and then processed.  These resources include but are not limited to iron, aluminum, zinc, nickel, tin, magnesium, phosphorus, and silver.  Mr. Ed makes no mention of the impact of this mining, or even the processing.  You can do any Google search to read about the disastrous effects from substantial deforestation, consequent erosion, and toxic pollution these efforts cause.

Material manufacturing:  After extraction and processing, raw materials are then used in the production of materials for the computers components. For example, sand becomes glass, oil goes into plastics, and metals become part of the integrated circuit boards. According to the UNU (United Nations University) it takes the same amount of chemicals (49 pounds), water (3307 pounds), and fossil fuels (530 pounds) to make one desktop computer and monitor as it does to manufacture a midsized car. In total the amount of fossil fuels used to produce one desktop computer is 10 times the weight of the computer itself.  But we’re not done there — more often than not, these parts are shipped elsewhere, usually overseas in places where child labor laws are not exactly followed, for assembly into the finished computer.

Packaging: The computer is then packaged, usually in plastics and cardboard to protect it during transit.  We are talking pallets, cardboard inserts, corner stiffeners, shrink-wrap, and labels. Should we talk about what percentage of that cardboard and packing materials that are recycled?  Figures vary but about 72% of all corrugated cardboard packaging was recycled.  However, note that not all types of cardboard can be recycled.  Most telling is the EPA’s estimate that in 2008, containers and packaging materials representing the largest category of the municipal solid waste (approximately 250 million tons) at just over 30% of the total waste materials.  Print directories made up less than 1%.

Transport:  Packaged computers are shipped all over the world, many traveling great distances from where they were manufactured. And where did your computer come from? Did you look and see where it was manufactured? I don’t think it was one of the nearby US or Canadian plants that produce the Yellow Pages industry’s paper for the printer books.

Each mode of transportation has its own carbon footprint with airfreight having by far the biggest. Consider this:  a large container ship traveling 7000 miles transporting just 1 ton of cargo would use up 1190 pounds of CO2. Even more intensive is regional airfreight. For transporting that same 1 ton materials up to a maximum of 2400 miles, that airplane would use 6720 pounds of CO2 (source). I’m not aware of any publisher transporting their books for distribution on a container ship or regional airfreight. Most is coming via freight train with final delivery through trucks.

Use:  Computers are utilized today in every walk of life, business, schools, and homes.  Heck, I sit in front of two of them all day long myself.  These devices require tremendous amount of energy.  In Mr. Ed’s analysis he failed to account for the fact that some 70% of computer usage energy usage is outside normal office hours and when idle. From one source“…..In a typical office, computer/monitor combinations far outweigh all other office equipment in terms of energy consumption….” We should all be shutting down machines at night and on the weekends to drastically reduce how much power it uses, but the reality is that’s not happening. (Source)

End-of-life:  Here is where things get really nasty. The ever shortening lifespan of the computer currently averages 2 to 5 years. Other personal electronics are replaced with even greater frequency (think how often you are changing out your cell phone). The many toxic substances contained in computers and other electronic devices cause problems when disposed of improperly. As the Earth 911 site noted:  “…In 2005 alone, almost 2 million tons of e-waste were landfilled. While toxic materials comprise only a small amount of this volume, it doesn’t take much lead or mercury to contaminate an area’s soil or water supply. ..”

If properly recycled many of the material and plastic components can be dismantled and reused. But only about 14% of the computers components and materials can actually be recycled into usable materials.  What’s in E waste??  Among the many hazardous materials harmful to human health and the environment are: lead, mercury, arsenic, barium, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, to name just a few (for more, go here).  EPA numbers indicate that only about 18% of the 3,000,000 tons of used electronics in the US are actually recycled. Let’s compare that with EPA’s estimate that 57% of the paper consumed in the US was recovered for recycling in 2008.


So as you can see, a shift from print to electronic isn’t the slam dunk for a greener environment that people may have incorrectly been lead to believe….

17 responses to “The Dirty Little Environmental Secrets Print Haters Don’t Want To Talk About

  1. Ken, you’ve raised some great points here. Thanks for doing that. I think the challenge here is that people are going to own and use computers, so if they can use a small fraction of their computer’s time (a sunk environmental cost) on searching for local business information, that’s likely more environmentally friendly than sending people many large books annually in order to achieve the same thing.

    Would it be fair to assume that you think people should rely upon printed encyclopedias rather than Wikipedia as well?

    Or mailing photo albums to friends and family rather than using Facebook?

    While ewaste is a very serious issue, it’s certainly getting a lot of attention and getting better over time. For example, I’m using a MacBook Pro to type this, which uses a small fraction of the energy to create, ship, run, and dispose of compared to the desktop computer hooked up to a CTR monitor I was using 10 years ago.

    By the way, while your 57% vs. 18% paper vs. ewaste stat may be accurate, the stats I’ve seen regarding phone directory stats are much closer to what we see for ewaste (20% vs. 18%). That seems like a more reasonable comparison when making a fair YP argument.

    • @Ed:

      The purpose of the entire article was not to suggest we go back to the caveman days and eschew all technology. Hardly that. Instead it was two fold:

      1) at a time when many, many municipalities and state governments are facing serious budget challenges, it would make more sense to pursue those items which take up substantially more of the waste stream, are costing the taxpayers to deal with, and are far more harmful to the environment than the .3% that printed phone books represent in their once a year delivery. The efforts of you and others while admirable, seem a bit over the top. There are much bigger issues that could and should be championed.

      2) a consistent pattern I see in many “green” discussion is the instant, naive assumption that anything electronic is more “green” than say print. In totality, it isn’t. Does electronic bring other more non tangible benefits?? No doubt. But it is hardly the perfect solution it is often made out to be.

      • Ken, could you point me to some resources where people argue that electronics are more green than print? Frankly, I’m not familiar with such arguments. I doubt many would say that a computer is greener than a printed directory, a Kindle greener than a novel, etc.

        What I tend to hear is that people find print directories wasteful since they can access the same information using devices they already own, such as phones and computers, so find the unsolicited delivery of phone books multiple times per year to their homes wasteful.

      • You answered your own question Mr. Ed. If you and others think a print directory is “wasteful” and you eschew them for digital only, aren’t you then considering a digital alternative to be a greener choice??

        If you look from website to website (or blog to blog) to people advocating a greener lifestyle, one of their first targets of disgust is usually print directories. They encourage everyone to stop using/getting books. And what are they then going to use for their information source? Usually a PC/mobile phone/tablet. And they all draw their power from where? Most likely a coal fired utility plant. Sounds like a really green alternative to me….

      • Ken, your argument make sense if people are giving up print directories for digital alternatives. However, I think we can both agree that that’s not what’s really happening here. People find computers and smartphones valuable for a wide range of uses, from business productivity to gaming. And, a small fraction of their computing time is used to look up information that can be found in print directories.

        Imagine that yellow pages directories didn’t exist, but everyone had a computer. Then multiple yellow pages directory companies popped up over night and started dropping books on people’s properties without their permission. That’s the perspective of the people you describe. They don’t have a need for the books, so they find the unsolicited delivery of them wasteful. They also see books being delivered to vacant homes, over delivered to offices and apartment buildings, etc., which is clearly wasteful (and not even competing with electronic forms of information).

        It seems like, for your argument to make sense, you’d need to argue that people should give up their computers and go back to printed information. Clearly, that’s not going to happen since people will choose convenience, just as they have with, say, music formats.

      • You’ve gone off point again Mr. Ed. Go back to the response I made to your first comments. This blog wasn’t about suggesting that digital devices be abandoned. Read the orginal post again.

        The primary point was that at a time when many, many municipalities and state governments are facing serious budget challenges, it would be more logical to focus on those items which take up substantially more of the waste stream (e.g. are costing the taxpayers to deal with), and are far more harmful to the environment than the .3% that printed phone books represent in their once a year delivery.

        I don’t see the PC or mobile industry stepping up with major efforts to recycle the stuff they generate, as the yellow page industry has. And I don’t hear any major concerns out of your mouth about it. Instead you want to ignore the bigger issues to focus on the 1% of books that are misdelivered.

  2. Ken, Great comments and what an eye opener! I myself have been hoodwinked into thinking just as you have pointed out…digital is always better when it comes to being green! As with everything you need all the facts and thanks for bringing those facts to the front.

  3. How about the original, “sustainable” green”….
    Tree=wood. Wood=paper. Paper=print directory.
    Print directory=recycled pulp. Recycled pulp=new paper/products.
    What happens to the biodegradibility/recycling of millions of pounds of plastic, batteries, cables, printers, & hard drives? It’s gotta go somewhere!!

  4. Ken, once again you have hit the nail on the head with the first blow. The Ed Kohler’s will always be around to throw their weak arguments into the ring, but the truth is, when faced with the facts, such as you have done once again, it leaves them without a leg to stand on.

    I found it interesting when I read the article concerning what SF is wanting to do, that the overwhelming majority of responders to the blog supported the old Print Directories, and continue to use them on a weekly basis. Why? Because it still does what it was originally intended to do, about 150 years ago.

  5. Ken,
    Thank you for staying on point and putting the entire picture out there!!

  6. Well the reality is that not everyone has a computer or electronic device to use. At least not yet. As the older generation dies out then you might could say get rid of print.

  7. Ken:
    Your “article” described a process flow by which a personal computer was fabricated and provided to a consumer (and also the discontinuation of its use and the concomitant ecological issues). I suggest that you did not provide a similar process flow for the printed product. Consider my thoughts as related to your framework.
    Printed matter requires paper and ink to be manufactured. This involves the cutting down of trees and the inclusion of recycled materials as well as the development of soy-based inks (and maybe other materials). It could be argued that these sources are organic and don’t contribute to a negative effect on the environment. However, there is the potential for soil erosion (should the provider of trees not have a replanting philosophy) and for chemical dumping in the ink creation.
    What about pulp processing and the chemicals needed to create paper as well as the enery required to finish the paper creation? Is there a quantification available for a per directory page per thousand copies statistic that could be developed? Also, there is the general need for electricity for all the manufacturing processes throughout the process.
    The use of pallets and the shrink-wrapping of them also affects trees as well as petroleum usage for the plastics. What arethe costs/effects of these?
    Each directory will be either trucked to its distribution area or mailed. There is clearly a cost here (petroleum, labor, etc). Also the paper rolls, the cover stock and the ink need to be transported to the printing location. Even the trees as cut need to be transported to a processing location.
    Here it would seem that the printed product merely takes up shelf/desk/trunk space as appropriate.

    I believe that you explained the computer fabrication process reasonably well but that you could have done the same for the printed product.

    All things considered, the real issue for “the business” is whether consumers going forward will retain a significant allegiance to the printed product or find that their more personal needs are met by the many apps that exist which cater to their immediate buying needs and are located in their pockets/purses/belt holders instead of in the drawer back home (or maybe in the trunk of their car).

    • @Bob H:

      for space considerations I only ran thru the life cycle of the digital products. My next “article” is going cover the life cycle on the print products. But let me offer you some quick highlights:

      RAW MATERIAL EXTRACTION: sorry to disappoint you but the industry doesn’t need to have any trees cut down for their paper — they’ve already been cut for use in lumber, the very products that are used to build the houses we live in and the office buildings we work in. If anything the industry is reusing residual material that would normally have ended up straight in the landfill, but our critics don’t seem to want to acknowledge that.

      MATERIAL MANUFACTURING: of course electricity and chemicals are used in the processing of the pulp. But if you’d ever visited a paper factory you would’ve seen the wall full of certificates and licenses that these companies need from everything from local governments straight through to the EPA. Their manufacturing processes are constantly scrutinized.

      TRANSPORT: yes, print books are transported from the printer to their final destination point. But as a cost issue, publishers select printers that are located as geographically close as possible to the market. Transportation is then usually done by either rail or truck to the distribution market. This is a little different than the PC which is manufactured in Asia and then flown or shipped via cargo ship to a dock in the US. From there the transportation of that PC to a warehouse or store more closely mirrors what goes on with the books.

      USE: Bob, I don’t recall this is a category that I covered in my “article”. Instead the final category that I covered was the ultimate recovery and recycling of the product. And unless I’ve missed something I’m not aware of any manufacturer of PCs or printers or cell phones actively working in local communities to recycle and recover their products as yellow page publishers do. Print telephone books are fully recyclable. Can anyone say that about components in a PC or printer or cell phone??

      So thank you for your comments and keep your eyes open for the next article on the lifecycle of a print product.

  8. What a silly argument. Personally I could care less which is more harmful to the environment. People will buy computers. People do not buy Phone books. Phone books are delivered to people without any form of consent.

    When digital local search alternatives did not exist, phone books were welcomed. Now that the “vast majority” or urban dwellers own computers, smartphones, and other devices, one can assume that it is respected that homeowners not get trash on doorsteps in this modern digital age.

    When it is blatantly clear that the majority of people do not want a product, wouldn’t it make sense to regulate, enforce, or respect those requests, if those requests continue to be ignored?

    • @Mike:

      Silly? The part about your tax dollars going to pay to clean up other people’s messes? Isn’t that what you were ranting about on another post?

      I don’t buy a newspaper but my neighbor does. Can I opt out of paying taxes to have the city recycle that?

      I have no young kids, but most of the people on my block do. Can I opt out of paying taxes for the city to have to deal with 6+% of the waste stream that comes from the many dirty disposable dippers those kids generate?

      Or was it silly to note that only about 14% of that computers components and materials can actually be recycled into usable materials, while a print direct is closer to 100% recyclable?

      If you don’t “care about which is more harmful to the environment”, is it ok with you that I am more than a little worried about the many hazardous materials e-waste does generate such as: lead, mercury, arsenic, barium, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, to name just a few. Especially since if it’s coming from products I didn’t purchase and can’t opt out.

      Yep, it’s silly.

  9. Regarding your response to Bob:
    ”USE: Bob, I don’t recall this is a category that I covered in my “article”.”
    Actually, yes, you did include this category in your “article”. It’s right between transport and end-of-life.

    And what do you mean that ”sorry to disappoint you but the industry doesn’t need to have any trees cut down for their paper — they’ve already been cut for use in lumber” ?
    Where do you get your information? The paper manufacturers do *not* use the same material that is used to make lumber. Trees and other plants are specifically harvested to make paper.

    Bottom line: People will continue to buy and use computers and smartphones, regardless of raw material extraction, material manufacturing, packaging, transport, use, and end-of-life! They have nearly become a necessity of life. In fact, *you* are using one right now to share your ideas. Whereas paper phone books are quickly becoming a nuisance and a waste. Why print something that won’t be used? Why should I be forced to deal with a printed publication that I don’t need or use? It’s wasting my time. It *is* wasting resources – because I won’t read or use it and it will only go into recycling. But why print it in the first place? My opinion (I’m allowed to have one – this is the United States of America) is for people to opt-IN to get these antiquated phone books. I personally think there will be fewer people that opt-in than there would be to opt-out.

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