How green is my data?

Are businesses actually making a change for the better when they decide to go digital because it’s better for the planet than paper?

Johannesburg, 29 Jul 2019
Read time 6min 40sec
Mark Taylor, CEO, Nashua
Mark Taylor, CEO, Nashua

Are businesses actually making a change for the better when they decide to go digital because it’s better for the planet than paper? Not necessarily, says Mark Taylor, CEO of Nashua.

“Businesses must ensure that they’re comparing apples with apples, and they must avoid falling into the trap of oversimplifying the discussion.” He goes on to say that there are too many misconceptions around printing being bad for the environment. He points out that six sheets of toilet paper have more impact on the environment than a single printed sheet of A4 paper. “When you consider all of the other consumables that a business buys such as tea, coffee and sugar, and the impact of each of these on the environment, you might find the impact of your printer is less significant in comparison. You have to see it in context. And be clear about whether you’re wanting to save the business money or are you doing it to be environmentally friendly?”

Back to the document dilemma: part of the digital transformation journey that all businesses have to embark on sooner or later if they want to remain competitive is the digitisation of all of their data. For more years than I care to remember, we’ve been talking about the nirvana that is the paperless office, yet for some reason it’s never really materialised in practice. This is despite businesses being subjected to decades of guilt trips about how damaging print is to the environment.

The bottom line is that people simply like paper. It has qualities that digital struggles to replicate. But exactly how environmentally friendly is data storage compared to paper? Taylor also makes the point that stored data may not always be accessible years down the line, citing the example of the floppy disc of old, whereas a paper document will always be accessible, even if the language used is difficult to understand.

"We’ve all seen the disclaimer at the bottom of e-mails asking us to consider the environment before hitting the print button. This implies that digital formats are more environmentally friendly than paper. But is this in fact true? There’s very much a broad perception that paper is bad and data is good. In reality, it’s not so clean cut. Each has its pros and cons. Because print has been around for so much longer than digital media, it’s difficult to draw a direct comparison between the two from an environmental perspective. In addition, electronic devices have so many other uses, making a direct correlation even more difficult."

The anti-print campaigners have their argument down pat: print kills trees, consumes lots of nasty chemicals and the printers themselves need to be disposed of down the line. But what about the technology required to deliver that e-mail to your desktop? As well as the fact that data has to be stored somewhere for a certain amount of time, depending on the applicable legislation. Just how environmentally friendly is it, if you consider the energy consumption alone? Not only is data storage expensive, history has shown that companies tend to store multiple copies of their data on multiple platforms owing to inefficient data management practices. Paper, on the other hand, might cost money to store, but doesn’t consume any energy for the duration.

Coal-fired power plants contribute to global warming and anyone who’s seen a coal mine in operation will attest that they aren’t the most environmentally friendly of operations, not to mention the emissions generated by the power plants. Greenpeace states in its Clicking Clean report that publishing conglomerates now consume more energy from their data centres than their printing presses.

As for the argument that paper kills trees, the paper industry plants more trees than it cuts down. Taylor quips: “Nobody tells you not to plant and eat fruit and vegetables because you’ll be depleting the planet. Why would harvesting a tree that was planted for that specific purpose be any different?”

Most of today’s modern paper mills are carbon neutral, they use renewable energy, recycled water and control their emissions. Not to mention that the trees planted by the paper industry absorb carbon dioxide and improve overall air quality.

While the aim isn’t to defend one or the other choice of format, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the true environmental impact of our choice of data or document is difficult to quantify and compare. If you take the time to consider the entire life cycle of the material of your choice, from product production all the way to end of life, your brain would probably explode.

While it might be difficult to make a direct comparison between the two formats from an environmental perspective, one can consider the pros and cons of each. And then there’s the security aspect: which is easier to defend, a piece of paper or a digital file? Interesting discussion, right?

Having said all of this, paper and digital media do have some common environmental issues, including:

  • Both require extracting materials, whether it is logging trees or mining minerals and metals, which damage and pollute the surrounding land and water;
  • Manufacturing paper and technology consumes energy and water;
  • Both consume energy throughout their life cycle, although when paper is stored it doesn’t consume energy, whereas data centres consume vast amounts of power; and
  • At end of life, both paper and technology need to be disposed of responsibly with recycling occurring wherever possible.

So what is the solution? Using renewable energy, ensuring more sustainable supply chains and implementing proper recycling practices would all make a significant difference to the world we’re leaving for our children.

All of which brings us to the elephant in the room: the bottom line. Is the drive to go digital all about cutting costs and not about the environment after all? Digital documents are certainly cheaper for businesses to manage than large volumes of paper. Often companies that encourage their customers to receive receipts electronically are doing so because it’s cheaper for them, not because they’re concerned about the environment. The same financial institution that encourages you to decline a slip from the ATM (because it requires time and resources to keep the ATM loaded with paper) will happily print out multiple copies of a loan application for you to sign. It’s certainly something to think about.

While Taylor isn’t taking sides, he does encourage businesses to consider all possible aspects of the arguments for and against paper versus data. He says: “It’s not a clear-cut decision, and I’d like to see a more balanced discussion in the future. Is it really cheaper to store a digital document, or is it just easier?"

And, finally, regardless of the answer to the above, in the event of a protracted power outage, I’ll still be able to read my book by candlelight, while, once your laptop or other device’s charge has drained, you’ll be sitting twiddling your thumbs in the dark.