Loving Paper And Saving the Planet

Another very scary article about CO2 emissions and global warming , this time in the Herald (U.K.). While there are a host of things we should do to mitigate the impact of human-induced climate change, working to increase digital content delivery is one of the no-brainers. Paper products consume 40% of landfill space, and tremendous amounts of resources and energy go into paper production and printing, and the transportation of paper-based information. Of course some energy and therefore resources are expended transmitting a megabyte of bits over the Internet – but many orders of magnitude less than printing and trucking around the several pounds of paper book those bits can replace.
We can love paper books all we want. I certainly do. But most of the people on the planet simply can’t afford them. And per the Herald article, in the long run neither can the rest of us. Creating highly usable, compelling experiences for digital reading and, over time, replacing a significant portion of current paper consumption with digital consumption, is simply one of our “must do’s”.

8 Responses to Loving Paper And Saving the Planet

  1. Tell that to the wonderful agencies that send out mass mail distributions to various regions where money is not an issue and the credit card companies that fill your mailbox with snail mail spam. Good thing San Francisco believes in recycling. 😉

  2. But do books represent a significant percentage of paper use, as compared to packaging, those billions of holiday catalogs starting to overflow our mailboxes, bulk mail, etc., etc.? I’m certain we use more paper at home in the form of packaging, catalogs, and paper towels and various tissue products than in terms of books we buy (rather than borrow from libraries)–not to mention magazines and newspapers.
    For that matter: Do books really represent a significant portion of that 40%? Are people in the habit of throwing out their books?
    Much as I love the daily print newspaper, one copy of one Sunday paper certainly represents several times as much paper as a typical book.

  3. John Dowdell says:

    Hi Bill, have you seen any actual, concise evidence that human effects contribute in a meaningful way to the dramatic temperature shifts the planet has seen over the centuries and millenia?
    Most of what I come across is like this, from the article you cited: “The weighty 700-page report, full of impenetrable language and indecipherable graphics, is essentially split into two: the problem and the solution.”
    What’s the human contribution? And, if it turns out to be meaningful, would the recommendations actually achieve the desired ends? (Kyoto wouldn’t’ve.)
    I agree with you that ephemeralization is a good longterm goal, but when stuff can’t be made clear, I smell scams. Do you see concise proof behind all this talk? Thanks.
    (btw, from all those books, forms, and papers, I’m more concerned about the human time spent attending to that paper than the landfill it temporarily occupies… time is a nonrenewable resource.)
    tx, jd

  4. Charles Lai says:

    I have an online subscription to the N.Y. Times because between my work PC and my laptop at home, it’s easier for me to access the articles and archives vs. receiving a daily newspaper delivery. Recently, a N.Y. Times Sunday paper was delivered to everyone in the local area to entice them to subscribe, and I’m reminded of a cartoon which showed the deliverymen of a dump truck asking a man where they could dump the Sunday edition of the Times which filled up the whole truck.
    Recently, I’ve stopped buying books unless I think I will reuse it as a reference or it’s something I believe my children will reread many times. It’s not really to save money – it’s because the bookshelves in my house are overflowing with books stacked horizontally on the books stacked vertically. My wife is still wondering what I’m going to do with the boxes of comicbooks my parents gave to me when they retired and moved to a smaller home…

  5. Bill McCoy says:

    Walt, I don’t know what percentage of paper use and related resource consumption books represent. I do know that every time our family moves, packing and unpacking our physical books is a very big deal. In our home they probably consume more space than any other category of inanimate posessions.
    The best evidence I can offer up that books consume significant resources is their price and scarcity in the developing world, even in parts of the world with little or no intellectual property protection.
    But my argument is broader than books: phone books and newspaper and magazines should also be going digital, and the environmental savings may be significantly larger in these areas. Even if eBooks could save me more effort next time I move.

  6. Bill McCoy says:

    John: my point here was not related to the underlying causes of global warming, it was to point out how digital publishing can help minimize exacerbating the effects.
    It’s simply a fact that if we pile on more and more CO2 we’ll be making things worse, even if it turns out to be pure coincidence that our recent 2 degrees Celsius warming coincided with human population explosion and the Industrial Revolution.
    If you want to debate root causes, there’s plenty of enviro blogs that will be happy to give you a forum. But please, no politics here.

  7. Eamer says:

    Sounds good to me, Bill. What surprises me most is that 40% of landfill space is still taken up with paper in this day and age when recycling is so commonplace. I bet someone with the right business sense could insert themselves in that link and make a good living out of all that paper.

  8. Nick Ciske says:

    I think books are the least of our concern, as some commenters have mentioned above.
    There is a huge second hand market for books! People tend to keep books around, sell them, donate them, or give them away to friends. They rarely end up in landfills.
    The paper that is filling our landfills is junk mail, magazines, and newspapers.
    Getting a digital edition of Wired or the weekly paper will likely save lots of resources and CO2 emissions. Junk mail is probably a lost cause (save legislation banning it or taxing it out of existence).
    I’m confused by the ‘price’ argument though–If someone can’t afford a $5 book, how are they going to afford a $350 eBook reader or a computer to synch it with?
    The $100 laptop project will go quite a ways towards making this possible, but that will be bankrolled by governments, not consumers.
    And here’s another side of the coin to consider:
    Trees are a renewable resource: we can plant more. Paper is recycleable and biodegradable. It takes a lot of energy to make paper, but it has a long lifespan (in books at least).
    Silicon, petroleum, copper, etc. (all the components in a computer/eBook reader) are not. Not to mention the toxic chemicals needed to manufacture the units. Most computers last only a few years before being discarded.
    So which is more eco-friendly in the end?
    I don’t know, but I’m not sure the argument is as simple as… digital is always better 😉