Tag Archives: co2 used

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….