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Bytes or paper: Greening media with ICT?

Published May 27, 2010

The media and information & communication technology (ICT) sectors have developed rapidly in recent decades. There is an increasing overlap between the two sectors, with electronic media complementing and challenging traditional media alternatives. In her PhD thesis presented on 27 May 2010, Åsa Moberg examines how some new ways of producing, distributing and accessing media are performing from an environmental perspective.

The overall impact of the ICT and entertainment & media sectors is illustrated by a macro-perspective on greenhouse gas emissions. In 2007, an estimated 1.4% of global CO2 equivalents were caused by the ICT sector and 1.7% by the entertainment & media sector. Within the ICT sector computer manufacturing and use are major sources of emissions, whereas emissions from telecom are lower. TVs and TV peripherals make up the largest share of emissions from the entertainment & media sector, followed by printed media.

There is a common belief that digital media solutions are generally environmentally superior to their printed paper counterparts. Pulp and paper production admittedly gives rise to considerable environmental impacts, but the ICT sector, with its multitude of electronic consumer devices, is also responsible for a significant environmental impact.


Some advice on sustainable media use

  Here are some general, common sense recommendations for environmentally concerned users of media products.

Sharing is caring
If you prefer paper books, share your books with others and you will dramatically decrease the environmental impact per benefit. So libraries and second-hand bookshops are still very useful.

Don’t print it
If you have it electronically, don’t print it – especially not again and again.

Be careful how you buy it
Even if you buy your book on the internet, don’t take the car to the post office to collect it.

Buy multi-purpose products
Don’t buy an electronic device for every single medium and don’t buy the latest version when your present one is working fine. Devices such as smartphones, netbooks, ipads, e-readers, media players, etc. are updated frequently. From an environmental point of view it is better to have a product that serves many purposes. So try to find a device that allows you to read the news, books, work documents, e-mails and even your electronic invoices. And check the power use!

In her thesis, Åsa Moberg specifically considers the product-related environmental impacts of printed and electronic versions of books, newspapers and invoices. Environmental impacts include global warming, eutrophication, acidification and toxicological effects. Screening life cycle assessments provide information on the environmental impact of products ‘from cradle to grave’. Åsa Moberg’s results show that there is no clear-cut answer regarding whether bytes or paper are preferable from an environmental perspective. She found that the environmental benefit of energy efficient e-reading devices is counteracted by the environmental impact of manufacturing the devices.

Replacing printed with electronic invoices proved to be beneficial from a climate change and energy use perspective (other environmental impacts not addressed). There is already an electronic system for handling invoices at most businesses, so if end-consumers and other stakeholders can do without printed copies, replacement of printed invoices may be the correct option. However, an electronic invoice is much less beneficial if printed on a home printer.

The production and use of media products are not the only relevant aspects according to Åsa Moberg. How customers actually obtain products may also makes a major difference. Typically, a 10 km car trip to buy a book pollutes the environment more than the book itself. Many electronic devices are not used to their full extent as they are too frequently replaced by newer versions or simply not used at all, causing unnecessary environmental burdens.

More studies are needed to gain a more thorough understanding of the environmental impact related to the handling of e-waste and the long-term consequences of new media and ICT solutions. Data gaps and uncertainties, specifically regarding toxicological impacts, need to be prioritised in future research.

Read Assessment of media and communication from a sustainability perspective (Åsa Moberg)!

Belongs to: Centre for Sustainable Communications
Last changed: May 27, 2010