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The Environmental Debate on Oldschool versus Modern

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

It almost seems like a century old debate: which one is better, paper or digital media? The first debate you will probably think of is about which platform is better for reading books? Here, the traditionalist book lovers are against the more comfortable, the ‘I-read-two-books-a-year-so-kindle-or-pdf-will-be-just-fine’ types. Another part of the discussion focuses on the effectiveness of these two tools. Is paperwork better done on the computer? Is taking notes more effective on paper?


I want to draw the attention towards a third side: greenness. It seems like it was ages ago that we even thought of that. It seems evident that we use digital media, and that it’s greener. What, do you not want to save the trees?!


Well, if you ask me, of course I want to. But I also want to use and ultimately waste less plastic and save important minerals and metals like gold, silver, and palladium. Why those, you ask? Those minerals are among the materials that are used for producing digital accessories.


The belief of digital media being more environmental friendly has swept across the world. “Less trees are cut when you use digital media”, “Let’s save the rain forests”, etc. But are these statements true? No, I’m asking you! I do not know, personally. I know some things, but the debate won’t end with this article. So let’s lay down some of the things that I, a non-expert on environment, have thought about.


First of all, there is no long-established measurement of the effects of digital media, or how much of, for instance, plastic waste is constituted of digital waste. It is only the last few decades that digital media has slowly taken over, therefore, the long lasting effects are yet to be seen. I’m not saying it’s not measurable, I’m saying it’s a bit harder.


An aspect that is measurable though, is energy. I wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly how much energy per household is used for charging laptops, phones, etc., but the amount is certainly increasing. Naturally, newspapers and books don’t use that kind of energy.


What both sides use, is transport. Again, there’s the belief that the transport costs of paper are much higher, as more paper is transported in all kinds of forms and that digital media, on the other hand, needs to be transported once, and from then on, you can view all your newspapers online, download e-books, and will save that part of the transport cost. But what about all the particles of digital tools, all the transport they go under? Increasing usage of tech products, their shorter life-span, and therefore the increase in the amount of production might as well equal just as much transport-cost and CO2 emission as paper.


Furthermore, one of the strongest arguments that can be brought up to support the paper side is sustainability. Paper is compostable. It breaks down in nature, not like plastic, which is one of the major components of tech products. Different kinds of plastic take different amount of times to biodegrade. The average, however, is 450 years, whereas the average time for paper to break down is around one month.

Another widespread belief is that paper production cuts down trees. Does it equal decrease in the amount of trees in the long run? Not really. That’s why sustainable forestry was invented. By the worldwide and centuries if not milleniums long usage of paper, the market has been developed at least hundreds of years ago. Time has thus worked on paper’s side, as sustainable management of paper production has already been established. Moreover, the images of rain-forests being cut down are not due to paper production (well maybe a little part). Mostly, they are being cut for development of a certain area or other natural resources.


Not for paper necessarily.


Whereas time has been generous to paper production, it hasn’t been to digital media. There is no one solution that has been proven to recycle plastic in a way that it breaks down sooner. There is also no solution to replace the minerals that are the bulk of digital tools. With the current emphasis on climate change, sustainable production is more wished for than ever, and digital production can’t say much on that topic. And would you honestly wish for more insecurity in trying times like this?


Maybe, the two types of media can coexist and the question is not so much what to use, but when to use it? Maybe as we speak sustainable mining and plastic production ways are published and will be applied to digital media very soon and all this will be a long gone problem. But in the mean time, it’s just something to think about. Even if for example you read the news online (as I do) and do most of every-day life matters online, like reading a book, because it’s faster, or cheaper, just forget about the trends for a second, and try the oldschool version. Not because retro is cool, but because retro may be greener.

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