January 18, 2013

The Myth Behind “Going Paperless”

We read with some incredulity the news of Google’s encouragement to consumers to ‘Go Paperless in 2013’. This initiative is accompanied by pictures of trees and US recycling data that presumably is intended to highlight the environmental benefits that will arise from ‘going paperless’. http://www.paperless2013.org/.

Google is joined in the project by US based organizations HelloFax, an online fax service; Manilla, an online bill management service; HelloSign, an e-signature service; Expensify, an online expense reporting service; Xero, an online business accounting service; and Fujitsu, which makes the ScanSnap scanner.

While the products and services delivered by Google are to be admired, this new initiative is clearly another example of a self-interested organization using an environmentally focused marketing campaign to promote its services while ignoring its own impact upon the environment.

Let’s consider the facts:

Google’s own environmental impact is astounding (1).

  •  Google uses 2.3 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year. This would power 207,000 US homes for one year, or about 41 Empire State Buildings.
  • Data centre power use accounts for roughly 2 per cent of the US’s annual electricity consumption.
  • For every kilowatt-hour used for computing in a typical data centre, nearly a whole additional kilowatt-hour is used for running cooling and heating systems.
  • 100 searches on Google is equivalent to burning a 60 watt light bulb for 20 minutes, using 0.03Kwh electricity and 20 gms of carbon dioxide.
  • 100 minutes of YouTube video is equivalent to burning a 60 watt light bulb for 13 minutes, using 0.02 Kwh of electricity and 13 gms of carbon dioxide.
  • Every gmail user uses 2.2Kwh energy every year and generates 1.2kg of carbon dioxide.

Greenpeace (2) highlights that E-waste is now the fastest growing component of the municipal solid waste stream. In Europe e-waste is increasing at three to five percent a year, almost three times faster than the total waste stream. The amount of electronic products discarded globally has skyrocketed recently, with 20-50 million tonnes generated every year. Electronic waste (e-waste) now makes up five percent of all municipal solid waste worldwide.

Studies (3) have reached the conclusion that document reading, if intended to be read more than once or by several people, may be more environmentally friendly if printed.

A New York Times recent article (4) revealed the extraordinary impact electronic communication is having on the environment.

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