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26 October 2022

Paper or Digital - Which One is More Environmentally Friendly?


 Sustainability is, luckily, a more and more popular topic these days, and one of the very important subjects when talking about this is paper, more specifically how to reduce the use of paper and replace it with digital alternatives. Now, let’s take a moment to ask the question: which one is more environmentally friendly? They both have pros and cons, so we’re going to look at some relevant statistics and expert publications in order to find the answer to this question.

One thing is definitely certain: it depends. Let’s take an example though: we are a group of international volunteers, who develop and facilitate workshops for high school students. For these workshops we need to do research, structure our own ideas, create materials for the activities, as well as provide materials for the students. Let’s look at some general data, which could help us in this context.

Normal office paper weighs 80 grams per square meter, so considering the size of a normal A4 sheet, this would come out to be around 5 grams for each sheet. Assume we would need 30 sheets of paper for materials across all workshops, which can be reused, plus 30 more for each individual high school, which cannot be reused. For 5 high schools, this could even add up to 200 sheets of paper across our whole project, or 1 kilogram, taking into account any paper used along the process for other purposes. Considering 73.9% of paper is recycled in Europe, and the CO2 emissions for 1 kilogram of paper, our usage of paper amounts to approximately 570 grams of CO2 emissions.

Now: could we replace all this paper and go digital? Short answer - yes. Would the educational impact be the same? Maybe not. Even if we could ensure that everyone has access and knowledge to use digital tools, we have to also take into account the multiple factors of emissions by digital technologies. Devices such as laptops, tablets, or phones use up electricity; everytime we access online pages or documents, we access data centers, which also use up electricity. At some point, accessing the same document over and over digitally will instead make its paper version more environmentally friendly. In the other cases, the electronic version will be deemed more suitable.

As mentioned before, there’s definitely no single answer to digital vs. paper, however there are a lot of things to take into account when choosing our alternative. In most cases however, especially in the example mentioned above, digital is the way to go. And as always, there are the external variables, such as the impact of our work, or the efficient use of our time, which will linger in any aspect of our lives, beyond the discussions about sustainability and carbon footprints.

This article is part of the Project Our Food Our Future, written by Mihnea Chirila.