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Comparing the Environmental Impact of Print and Technology

Ever notice the comment at the end of Emails from well-intended individuals encouraging you to think about the environment before printing their Email? The implication is clear; they feel that we are helping to destroy the environment we live in by printing out a copy of an Email. These same, well-meaning individuals normally give no thought to the toxic waste that is generated as a result of their actions when they upgrade a computer or cell phone for something newer, faster, and with technology that is more recent. If you are interested in knowing how our habits and actions truly affects the environment, please read on as we compare the benefits of print to the toxic waste that technology is creating.

Print: If you want to do something that truly does make a positive difference in the world, purchase, and print using only environmentally certified paper. There are three primary environmental certifications: the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), an international umbrella organization. Each certification system uses somewhat different standards and covers different elements in the chain of custody, but they all focus on the long-term health of forests and protection of local communities. Most people are not aware of the fact that using environmentally certified paper actually helps to promote the protection of our forests. We will explain how that is possible in a moment.

Technology: First, let us consider the computer involved in the transmission of the aforementioned Email. What happens when the owner upgrades to a newer, faster, system? Where does their old computer end up? Environmental groups say there is a good chance this “e-waste” will end up in a dump in the developing world, where thousands of laborers burn, smash and pick apart the electronic waste to scavenge for the precious metals inside – unwittingly exposing themselves to innumerable toxic hazards. The “cyber-age nightmare” we are creating includes clusters of villages in southeastern China where computers from the United States are being ripped apart and strewn along rivers and fields.

Print: So how does buying environmentally certified paper help protect and grow forests? Nearly 60% of our nation’s forests are privately owned with 55 million acres of forestland owned by people who plan to sell or transfer some or all of their land in the next five years. How can we protect these rich ecosystems? Give landowners an economic incentive to hang onto them! In addition to the expense of protecting these woodlands against fire, insects, invasive plants and illegal logging, the owners have to pay property taxes as well. Selective harvesting and replanting portions of these woodlands for timber sales provides the needed income so the land can pay for itself, thereby reducing the risk that the landowner will need to sell the property to a developer.

Technology: The authors of the report “Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia” had investigators visit waste sites in Guiyu, China. There, they witnessed men, women, and children pulling wires from computers and burning them at night, fouling the air with carcinogenic smoke. Other laborers, working with little or no protection, burn plastics and circuit boards or pour acid on electronic parts to extract silver and gold, while many others smash lead-laden cathode ray tubes from computer monitors, the report said. Other materials contained in the e-waste posing risks to human health and the environment include nickel, cadmium and mercury. Consequently, the ground water is so polluted that drinking water has to be trucked in from a town 18 miles away. One river sample in the area had 190 times the pollution levels allowed under World Health Organization guidelines.

Print: Another reason for buying environmentally certified paper – it helps to support forests that are responsibly managed and as a result, healthy forests are maintained. Certified forests are under the management of professional foresters who manage them for long-term sustainability, wildlife habitat, and water and soil conservation, as well as recreational use. When you print on FSC-, SFI-, PEFC-, or other certified paper, you are helping to protect wildlife, biodiversity, carbon sequestration and, most importantly, water.

Technology: The report also estimates that as much as 50% to 80% of the United States’ electronic waste that is collected in the name of recycling actually gets shipped out of the country. Once it leaves the country there is no chain of custody and the waste often ends up in operations like the dump in Guiyu or similar ones in India and Pakistan. Here labor is so cheap it is cost-effective to try to salvage every last screw or bit of silver at the expense of the laborers’ health and the environment in which they live. It is time for the public to insist on a real electronics recycling and chain of custody program much like the printing industry developed several years ago. In 2009, only 25 percent of discarded computer products were collected for recycling, and currently the United States Environmental Protection Agency has no reliable data on how much e-waste we export.

Print: Going forward, please remember these points when thinking of the value of print and how it involves (1) supporting healthy forests, (2) reduction of the waste stream in lumber production and (3) encouraging and supporting recycling efforts.

Print Values Trees
Most paper now comes from sustainable forests. These forests are essentially “tree farms,” where trees are grown as a crop, just like broccoli or wheat. One-third of the fiber used to make paper comes from this renewable source.

Print Uses “Waste”
One-third of the fiber used to make paper comes from wood chips and sawmill scraps; another third comes from recycled paper.

Print is Recycled
Print on paper is recycled and reused. In 2009, for example, 63.4 percent of all paper used in the United States was recycled, and this number increases each year with more deliberate curbside and drop-off collection systems.

Print is Responsible
Just 11% of the world’s forests are used for paper. In the U.S. a growing percentage of the wood used to produce paper comes from certified forests. The Forest Steward Council (FSC) and Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI) track fiber content from certified lands through production and manufacturing to the end product. There are now certified forests in over 80 countries.

From sustainable forests to the renewable nature of trees and the recyclability of paper, the print and paper industries have a positive environmental story to tell—one in which print on paper and healthy forests thrive hand-in-hand.

If you would like to know more about how the print industry depends on responsible forestry, we have provided links to learn more.

Print and Sustainability

Print Grows Trees

And this excellent report from 60 Minutes