Paper versus digital & the impact on the environment

Progress isn’t just about creating the faster gadgets or the most sleek looking device; it’s about an overall philosophy focused on achieving certain ends more efficiently. That is, trying to do more with less. It’s obvious then that progress is central to caring about the environment, since it means we are still able to achieve our goals of living, while doing less harm to the environment itself – thus, a central focus should be the intersection between progress in terms of technology and progress in terms of caring for the planet.

Consider the simple example of paper and pixels. Paper was necessary due to technological limitations; it’s just what we had available in order to record our data. Now, however, pixels are everything, as everyone has a screen in front of them – whether phones or computers, since the whole world has gone digital. Even Africa, one of the least wealthiest regions, is renowned as the mobile continent.

What’s interesting is that the assertion that digital is “better” for the environment is actually still unclear, due to a lack of data. Consider for example the assertion that going digital is better for the environment. Greenbiz noted in 2010:

“There is significant evidence that our growing preference for digital media is having a profoundly negative impact on our forests and the health of our rivers. One of the more significant direct causes of deforestation in the United States is mountaintop-removal coal mining in the states of West Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina. Computers, cellular networks and data centers are connected to the destruction of over 600 square miles of forest in the U.S. because of their ravenous consumption of electricity.”

Yet, naturally, under certain conditions, reading digital does have less of a negative impact the world.

The issue is that we’re not swapping one for another – rather there are different aspects to be measured. Just because you’re not using paper to read doesn’t mean trees aren’t suffering.

There are other, smaller ways we can do better. For example, you can get point of sale software that does away with paper and conveys data directly to the customer. This even has business benefits: this software “enables retailers to maximise attach rates with notebook, PC and tablet sales, reduces supply chain costs, and makes it easier to manage renewal rates.”

This is just a small way that replacing paper with digital is better – but it must be considered on a case by case basis, rather than as a broad assertion.