Pixel or Paper? Is Electronic Media More Environmental?

Many of us received statements from our banks and utilities companies with a message at the bottom suggesting us to “Please consider the environment before printing this email” or “Go paperless, save trees!” accompanied by a logo of a winding river or a green tree.



Implied is the assumption that going digital is better for the environment. However, the paper industry argues this. They are pushing companies to remove these claims, which they says are misleading consumers and are not substantiated by adequate research.

The non-profit, Two Sides, an organization representing the paper and print industry, recently published a press release that it has convinced many major U.S. companies to remove their “anti-paper” green claims promoting e-billing as more environmentally friendly than paper.

“The goal is to put an end to unsubstantiated and misleading claims that electronic communications are more environmentally friendly than print and paper.” Riebel said.

Although, Two Sides has a stake in preserving the paper industry, the organization’s movement does raise an important question: Is going paperless really better for the environment?

Which do you prefer, Pixel or Paper?

“What people often don’t realize is that the paper-making process is sustainable, and claims to the contrary are misleading to the consumer,” said Mark Pitts , executive director of printing-writing, at the American Forest And Paper Association (AFANDPA).

According to Mr. Pitts, more than 65% of paper in the U.S. was recycled in 2012, making paper the nation’s most recyclable product. Over the past century, forest coverage from Minnesota to Maine, has actually increased by 28% according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service.

Digital media does appear more sustainable on the surface. However, producing electronic products also leaves a carbon footprint, as well as the energy needed to power them. There are also concerns of the amounts of electronic devices headed towards landfills, as many more people are acquiring them. E-waste is on the rise, with a global increase of 40,000 tons per year.

Just the Facts, Madam…

One of the main reasons it is difficult to assert that paperless is better for the environment is that the two commodities are so different, and one has been around much longer than the other.

Paper comes in a variety of forms from many different manufacturers and countries, so there will likely be a number of impacts, not just one that can be generally applied to all paper industries.

More research is needed regarding the footprint of electronics, which means there is no “average environmental footprint” for e-media either.

Two Sides’ main reasons for challenging the claims: (copied directly from site)

  • Unsubstantiated marketing claims like “Go green, Go Paperless” and “Go Paperless, Save Trees” do not meet guidelines for environmental marketing established by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
  • Print on paper made in the U.S. has many unique environmental characteristics compared to other products. It originates from a renewable resource – trees grown in responsibly managed forests, is recyclable and is the most recycled commodity in the U.S. with a recovery rate of over 65 percent in 2012 (America Paper & Forest Association, 2013).
  • Marketing messages like “save trees” create a false impression that forests are a finite resource that is being destroyed instead of a renewable resource that is continuously replenished using sustainable forest management practices. In the U.S., we grow more trees than we harvest. Over the last 50 years, the volume of trees growing on U.S. forestland increased 49 percent (Society of American Foresters, 2007).
  • The full impact of switching to e-media is often not properly considered and sometimes completely ignored. The direct impact of information and communication technology (ICT) products and services replacing paper is far from negligible, and the trade-off between the two “technologies” depends on conditions such as use frequency, source of energy and end-of-life management of the products (Arnfalk, P. 2010).
  • The claims are damaging to the U.S. economy and threaten U.S. jobs. A total of 8.4 million jobs (6 percent of total U.S. jobs) that generate $1.3 trillion in sales revenue (8.6 percent of U.S. gross domestic product) depend on the U.S. mailing industry, which includes paper production, printing production, related suppliers, graphic design and the handling and distribution of mail (EMA Job Study, 2012).
  • The life cycle of e-statements is often not paperless because many people print e-statements at home or at the office for record keeping and other uses (Two Sides & Toluna, 2013).

Which are we saving? Our wallets or the environment?

While the environmental benefits of going paperless may not be entirely clear just yet, it certainly carries cost savings for companies.

“It’s the bottom line that really motivates companies,” said Shamel Naguib, president at Paperless Productivity, “which helps large companies, including utilities and banking institutions, decrease or eliminate their paper documents by going electronic.”

“For 99.9% of the companies that employ us, the green initiative has nothing to do with it,” said Naguib. “It has everything to do with saving money.” Even when he started his company years ago, his employers motives to go paperless were never about going green. And now, “money is so tight with organizations and costs are such a critical part of the puzzle, I don’t know of anyone who is investing money just to be green,” he said.

Meanwhile, customers seem to be wising-up to companies’ true motives. According to a Two Sides survey, “eight of 10 people in the U.S. said they were suspicious of a company’s motives to push e-billing, believing financial considerations were the primary motivation for companies to push e-billing.”

The Take-Home Message

“The ideal situation is that we use both electronic and print media in a way that meets our social and environmental and economic needs,” Riebel said.

Until more research has been conducted on the longevity and environmental impact of electronics, pitting paper and e-media against each other is somewhat pointless. There is a place for both paper and e-media for the time being.

9 thoughts on “Pixel or Paper? Is Electronic Media More Environmental?

  1. Problem here is that huge single species forests are planted for woodchipping. The chips are sent to Japan and we buy it back as toilet paper and photocopy paper. Also some native forests are clear-felled and this causes a lot of controversy. We also have ‘two sides Australia’


    • I totally agree with you about a commodity getting grown or half processed somewhere, getting sent to another country then bought back at a premium. .. Welcome to America! As China pretty much owns us, we understand.
      Paper is one thing we’re good at here. Yes, the trees are a monoculture, however they don’t generally go clearing native tree stands/forests here for paper. Housing yes. If you travel though Wisconsin on a breezy day, the smell of the paper mills can be enjoyed for miles. .. 😜


    • At home I’m pretty good, I use anything for notes, old envelopes, advertisements… At work I do recycle for note paper, however most things get printed. L O T S of paper use there. So, don’t know where I fall into the mix. Wasteful at work and good at home!


  2. I’ve always assumed that companies push paperless mainly to save themselves the cost of mailing, but I have to think that it has the side effect of reducing tree-cutting. Since it tends to be an opt-in choice, people who select it are probably less likely than others to print the e-bill and save it. Even if it is printed, there’s no envelope, no blow-in cards, no advertising inserts, and every piece of paper not used for the purpose of billing is a piece of paper that can be used somewhere else. And true, there’s a carbon cost associated with the electricity involved, but it’s not like I wouldn’t be plopped in front of the computer anyway. 😉 Anyway there’s certainly nothing unexpected about the paper industry fighting for their turf, and with responsible stewardship of forests and widespread recycling (all the paper that does arrive here gets recycled), it’s hard to spot a villain here.


  3. Pingback: Monday Memories | Midwestern Plants

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