The Environmental Implications of Digital Publishing

April 22, 2013 Aaliyah Madadi

In the spirit of Earth Day, I’d like to take a deeper look into the environmental implications of digital publishing, especially as an increasing number of companies are striving to go digital. The debate between print versus digital publications has been developing over several years and the facts from both sides of the argument are compelling. The pro-print side argues against the e-waste that arises from digital technology, while the pro-digital supporters argue against the massive consumption of paper, water, and CO2 that comes with the territory of printed publications.

In order to better understand both sides, let’s walk through the story of how a typical print book is created and published. After an author has written his/her story and their piece has gone through the editing process, the book manuscript is submitted to a copywriter. After several back and forth sessions between the copywriter, editor, and author, the manuscript enters the design and layout process. More back and forth happens at this stage pertaining to design (especially if the content is image-heavy), before a mock-up “dummy” book is created for review.

Ultimately, the process just described is essentially the same whether you’re creating a book, newsletter, whitepaper, guide, brochure, or catalog for print or digital.

However, the difference between print and digital publications occur in the next few steps: for print publications, the finalized documents are sent in for printing and binding while digital publications are simply saved as digital files. Print publications are then physically transported to readers while digital publications are shared via online formats such as email and social media.

So far so good, except when we begin to consider the environmental impact of printed materials. Consider these facts:

  • The Cleantech Group reports that printed books have the “highest per-unit carbon footprint – which includes its raw materials, paper production, printing, shipping, and disposal – in the publishing sector.”
  • For a typical 32-page newspaper with a print run of 70,000, going digital would save 3226 trees, 134 tonnes of paper, 269 barrels of oil, 551,040 kW hours of electricity, and 13,873 kg of waste.
  • Ecolibris states that each year, over 2 billion books, 350 million magazines, and 24 billion newspapers are published in the US — that’s about 68 million tons of paper and paperboard and 30 million trees.
  • It takes 90 cups of water to produce a typical 60-page magazine.

Clearly, print publications have a taxing load on our environment. However, while the creation of digital publications eliminates the destructive component of straining environmental resources, concerns are related to the CO2 emissions that occur during the manufacturing of technological products. Studies show that it is indeed tougher on the environment to create an iPad rather than printing a book but the paper and water saved from reading content on tablets makes up for the initial CO2 emissions. Eco-Libris explains that from a carbon footprint perspective, an iPad becomes a more environmentally friendly alternative to printed books once you finish reading your 18th book on the device – and this doesn’t account for the newspaper articles and magazines that tablet owners read online versus through print.

Yet, as previously mentioned, the biggest concerns for digital technology pertain to the issue of e-waste, which continues to be a problem as the consumption of technological products increases. While it’s easy to blame companies and consumers  for making and purchasing products that contribute to e-waste, there’s a deeper educational issue at play regarding the proper ways to dispose of products.

First, try to use your electronic products for the entirety of their lifetime. While it may be difficult to resist purchasing the newest phone or tablet, using your product for the entirety of its life results in one less product that is discarded early. Ultimately, the fewer products we cycle through means fewer electronics that end up in landfills. If you decide to buy a new product before the expiry of your old one, consider selling it on a secondary market or giving it to someone else.

Second, recycle your products when you’re done with them. Electronic products must be recycled in a specific way such that toxic components are removed and properly discarded. Usually this means that the product must be disassembled in order for the parts to be separated and recycled/disposed of safely. Certain companies, such as Apple, have recycling programs in place where they will give you gift certificates or store credits in exchange for old items and then recycle your product free of charge.

Thus with some more education and awareness about the proper disposal process, the detrimental effects of e-waste can be significantly reduced. This reduction, coupled with the elimination of environmentally taxing print processes, will help make positive steps towards building a sustainable future. What’s your stance on the print vs digital environmental debate?

About the Author

After graduating from the HBA program at the Richard Ivey School of Business, Aaliyah launched her career as Marketing Coordinator at Uberflip! Prior to her HBA, Aaliyah also completed a Bachelor in English at Western University.

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