Electronic Communication Also
Has Environmental Impacts
“Go Paperless”, “Go Green” and “Save Trees” are common messages as many organisations encourage their customers to switch to electronic transactions and communications. But are these appeals based on fact?
These sorts of messages give the impression that electronic communication is more environmentally friendly than paper-based communication. But it is very difficult to make such statements without considering the full lifetime of those different mediums.
Paper is a uniquely renewable and sustainable product. The main raw material, wood, is grown and harvested in a carefully controlled and sustainable way – so sustainable, in fact, that European forests, where most of the raw material comes from, have grown by an area the size of Switzerland in just 15 years.
The ICT industry accounts for 5-9% of electricity use, which is more than 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions (as much as all air traffic). If left unchecked, the ICT footprint could increase to 14% of global emissions by 2040.
European Commission, 2020
But it is all too common for the impacts of digital to be forgotten. Research conducted by Two Sides found that 60% of European consumers believe electronic communications are better for the environment than paper-based communications.
Businesses and individuals are increasingly using ‘cloud’ services. These mega data centres store almost everything we do online, including our web searches, our social media posts and our online statements.
The electronic waste problem is also colossal and growing. In 2019, the industry was responsible for a gigantic 53.6 million metric tonnes of e-waste across the world. That’s equivalent to the weight of 350 cruise ships and up by an alarming 21% over the past five years.
In 2019, just 17.4% of global e-waste was collected for recycling (42.5% in Europe). Recycling activities are not keeping pace with the global growth of
e-waste. Non-environmentally sound disposal and treatment of this waste stream poses significant risks to the environment and to human health.
Raw materials from digital equipment, servers and power generators are often finite, precious and non-renewable, as well as being notoriously difficult to recycle.
Following engagement from Two Sides, over 750 of the world’s largest organisations have removed misleading statements that say moving to digital communications is better for the environment.