Tag Archives: environment

Misreading Paper and Print

Sometimes in the rush of change people misread what they are seeing.  If there’s a mantra for the 21st Century it should be “take a closer look”.  While the floodgates of modern media have brought us an amazing array of information, images, and ideas, it has also brought with it an outrageous amount of mis-information.  Sound bites are less about news and more about noise.  The alarming absence of perspective both fascinating and frightening.

Paper is a good example.  A surprising number of people believe that not printing on paper saves trees.  While being a responsible user of natural resources is important, the reality is the paper and forest industry grow and harvest trees specifically for paper making.  These managed forests better serve the environment through carbon sequestration and cleansing of the water aquifer. Print creates a demand for paper, which in turn creates a demand for trees and managed forests, all the while holding development or other less environmentally friendly uses of land at bay.  It may seem counter-intutitve to you, but it’s true.

A surprising number of people believe the e-devices (smart phones, iPads, laptops, net books, etc) populating the modern world have little to no impact on the environment.  The fact that it’s against the law in 50 states and the District of Columbia to toss your cellphone in the trash ought to tell you something—lithium batteries are hazardous waste.  Unfettered access to the on-line world sucks up a huge amount of energy.  It requires bricks and mortar, air conditioning, electricity, computers and huge data centers operating 24/7/365.  The increasing use of fossil fuels including coal and petroleum to provide the electricity for data centers is growing 24% a year. “E” is not free.

While some take newspapers, magazines and book manufacturers to task for not quickly adopting new forms of content delivery such as e-readers, the argument that paper is used to create scarcity conveniently overlooks the fact that only 83% of US homes have computers, fewer still broadband access and that e-readers are largely out of financial reach of many families and especially children.  Paper, in the form of books, magazines, and newspapers are readily available free in public and school libraries, at reasonable prices on newsstands and if you’re not too fussy on seats in subways, bus stations and coffee shops.  Paper as a metaphor for scarcity or the means to slowing idea creation seems wildly outdated.  E-devices are here to stay, but that doesn’t mean paper or print must go.  If you love breathing fresh air and drinking clean water assuring a demand for print, paper and trees may be the best and most beneficial idea yet. It could likely turn out that print is the renewable way a responsible world communicates.

The Failure of Innovation

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.