Smackdown: Printed Editions vs. Digital Editions

I recently read an amusing article in which a paper company sought to fight back against the “ridiculous” notion that electronic books are greener than printed books.

The article, from a company called International Paper and called “Smackdown: Printed Editions vs. Digital Editions” compared the environmental profile of ink-on-paper publications (dead tree editions) to digital publiations (what we might call “dead dinosaur editions” because of the fossil fuels and petrochemicals they consume).

When a respected publication such as The Wall Street Journal claims, as it did recently, that “e-textbooks are environmentally friendly”, it is important to examine the claim to see if it really holds water.

Here, then are some excerpts from the article, comparing Dead Dinosaur Editions with Dead Tree Editions on key attributes.

    Raw Materials: Paper is a renewable resource. The North American “paper and forest products industry replenishes more than it takes and ensures the sustainability of our forests by planting 1.7 million trees every single day, more than three times what is harvested.” But as for dead dinosaur editions,“making a computer typically requires the mining and refining of dozens of minerals and metals, including gold, silver and palladium, as well as the extensive use of plastics and hydrocarbon solvents.” No one is planting dead dinosaurs into the ground to make more oil for the petrochemicals that digital devices consume.
    Energy/Carbon Footprint “Sixty percent of the energy used to make paper in the U.S. comes from carbon-neutral renewable resources and is produced on site at mills.” “The electronics industry uses more than 90 percent fossil fuels purchased off the grid.”

    Recycling:“In the U.S., nearly 60 percent of all paper is recycled, recovered and reused to make new paper products.” Electronic devices have a recycling rate of only 18%.

    User Editing: The Journal article says most students prefer dead-tree textbooks to dead-dinosaur textbooks, partly because they can’t highlight important passages or write notes in e-textbooks.

    Reliability: Digital editions are often read on machines running Windows or Vista. ‘Nuf said. Dead-tree editions never crash, get infected with viruses, receive spam, or serve pop-up ads.

    Durability: Ever dropped a laptop? Not pretty.

    Lifespan: I read a 150-year-old book the other day and have75-year-old copies of National Geographic, but my 15-year-oldWordPerfect for DOS files are either unreadable or FUBAR (look it up on Wikipedia!). How many of today’s laptops, e-book readers, and iPhones will still be in use five years from now?

    Waste: “The lifespan of a computer is short, and electronics have become the fastest growing waste stream in the world.” Much of that waste is toxic. Paper is reusable, recyclable, and biodegradable.

    Personal Hygiene: Speaking of waste, which would you rather read while sitting on the toilet, a magazine or a Kindle? And remember that, before they had toilet paper, our ancestors had the Sears, Roebuck catalog. Ever tried to wipe your bottom with a Blackberry?

The half dozen comments on the article mostly come down on the side of digital editions. Here is one sample.

    Quick, take all the knowledge on the Internet and print it out. See if you can keep enough trees planted … One Kindle is worth 1,000 books. I’ll exchange a few dollops of rare metals and some plastic casing for all the books it would take to duplicate the information.

For my money, however, a link provided by one of the people who commented on the article is priceless. It opens up a minefield of claims and counter claims, and provides links to various other avenues that attempt to get at the truth of the matter.

We run a printing business, so we have a vested interest in “Dead Tree Editions”. However we download an electronic version of “The Age” every day, and find that we read more of the paper when it is in electronic form that in “Dead Tree” form. Last night I went to a Bible Study group and for the first time didn’t take a hard copy Bible — relied instead on my iPhone where I can search for words and phrases, read passages in various different translations, and even check out the use of words in the original language — all impossible with one hard copy Bible.

We would be very interested in your views on this subject.

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