It is probably against the laws of man and nature to suggest innovation lacks value. Even when innovative ideas fail, they often foster new concepts and products (think: Radar Ranges—the precursor to the microwave oven for example). If there’s a problem with innovation, it’s that it doesn’t take into account the growing issue of life cycles and long-term outcomes. The lure of today’s gadget-rich society is irresistible to many of us. That’s the real conundrum with digital innovation—we love the convenience and how smart these machines make us feel—but we don’t have a clue of what it truly costs (environmentally speaking) to produce them, recharge them, recycle or destroy them throughout their life cycle.
The fact that it is illegal in 50 states and the District of Columbia to throw your cell phone, netbook, notebook computer, iPAD, Kindle, iPOD or most any other lithium battery fueled electronic device into the trash ought to tell us something. We have a huge electronic waste problem in this country—one that technology companies—seem all too happy to export to other countries and hide from their end-users. We scrap about 400 million units per year of consumer electronics in the United States, according to recycling industry experts. Rapid advances in technology mean that electronic products become obsolete far more quickly. We toss out working devices at an alarming rate. The recent switch from analog to digital television is a great example of forced obsolescence. Did anybody really think about what to do with all these old lead-filled cathode ray televisions? The Environmental Protection Agency estimates there are now over 99 million television sets in U.S. homes that are no longer being used. Where will they go?
If there is a time, place and case for “green leadership” now would be an opportune time. Even if you aren’t convinced breezing around the Internet endangers the environment, or that e-mails are more eco-friendly, it’s interesting to note the annual energy consumed in transmitting and deleting SPAM is equivalent to the electricity used in 2.4 million U.S. homes and has the same carbon footprint as driving a car around the globe 1.6 million times. It’s not just what you or I do with our computers that matter; it’s what others do as well. Oh, and that 12 hours a week of Internet browsing—that’s about 300 pounds of coal per year, per person, to fuel the power plant that creates our electricity.
The Earth Day celebrations this week were a perfect reminder of the importance of having a deep understanding of what’s at work in this brave new digital world. It’s time to kick green leadership and greener innovation into high gear. The planet’s counting on us.
There’s a fascinating discussion going on at the LinkedIn Print Networking Group about the viability of print in the age of web, email and social networking. While guessing about the imminent death of an industry is always great sport, the death of print is wildly overstated. While print now has numerous competitors for “eyeballs” and attention, it still remains one of the most effective communication mediums on the planet. In a time when only 77% of American households own computers, print narrows the digital divide by providing ready access to books, magazines and other knowledge resources affordable to most everyone or available for free at community libraries.
Information technology marketing has long thrived on “smoke and mirrors” announcing new product launches well before the underlying technology is ready for “prime time” and by selling products that do not function as promised or are so complex they require a programmer’s level of knowledge to operate. While I love technology and use plenty of it, I have also seen it unnecessarily waste limited financial resources, deliver mediocre results and frustrate even the most devoted users. Technology companies positioning themselves as the “green” alternative conveniently overlook the 24% annual growth in energy demands from server farms essential to powering the Internet. Browsing the Internet for just 12 hours a week will require over 300 pounds of coal to fuel the electrical demand. Who browses only 12 hours a week? It’s clear we need to be paying closer attention to the impact of our prolific technology usage.
The United States alone dumps 200-300 million electronic items every year. While the Basel Convention bans the export of hazardous waste, US e-recyclers have successfully circumvented the treaty rules resulting in global e-waste dumps around the globe. With only about 14-18% of computers and computer related junk suitable for recycling, the race for the next generation of faster chips or the latest Netbook is really a race to top off landfills. Toss a computer into the landfill and your great, great, great grandchildren will be unearthing the circuitry, along with mercury, cadmium, and other toxins five decades from now. Toss a book or newspaper into the landfill and all of it will be gone by the time your grandchildren head off to school in the spring and probably sooner. That’s something to think about. E-waste is a big environmental issue and a huge business opportunity for someone with the necessary smarts and funds to create a responsible recycling management system.
While the ‘digital natives’ among us will always sing the siren song of a technology future and the well meaning will believe they are saving trees by not printing e-mail, the paper industry continues to lead the way in recycling nearly 58% of all paper consumed while printers are finding new solutions to complex communication needs. Printing companies remain among the most resilient, technologically sophisticated and nimble manufacturing enterprises on the planet. Printers bring a unique perspective and deep knowledge to the communications marketplace found nowhere else. That’s the real story about the future of print and the graphic communications industry today.