“Going Paperless: Not as Green as You May Think” is a rather provocative title, and probably deliberately so. That was the title of an article published April 14, 2010 by Don Carli on GreenBiz.com. I started doing some research on going green and the paperless movement when I saw an article in the Sunday Chicago Tribune that suggests we are not saving the planet as much as we think we are.
The April 24, 2011 article in the Tribune actually restates what Don Carli wrote over a year ago: digital media and communication are not quite as green as some would like us to think. Carli wrote, “There is no question that print media can and must do a better job of managing the sustainability of its supply chains and waste streams, but it’s a misguided notion to assume that digital media is categorically greener” (¶ 2). Carli goes on to state that we have to be aware of the “significant unintended environmental consequences” of digital media (¶ 7).
Digital media uses power. And the more we tweet and post, the more power we use because all that tweeting and posting goes through power lines and computers and servers. And that power means electricity. And where and how do we get electricity?
Chances are that the electricity flowing through your digital media devices and their servers is linked to mountaintop-removal coal from the Appalachian Mountains. The Southern Appalachian forest region of the U.S. is responsible for 23 percent of all coal production in the United States and 57 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S. comes from coal—including the rapidly growing power consumed by many U.S. data centers, networks and consumer electronic devices (Carli, 2010, ¶ 14).
If you’re interested in knowing your contribution to mountaintop coal removal, to go to ilovemountains.org and type in your zip code. You’ll see how your energy use could be affecting mountaintop mining. And if you want to know more about how that particular form of mining is devastating the Earth, you might also read Mountain Justice. The title of the site is a bit off-putting, but it’s worth checking out the information and then doing a bit more research if you’re so inclined. I don’t think you’ll be too happy with the results.
If you’re interested in figuring out your energy consumption, you might read Estimating Appliance and Home Electronic Energy Use. I know it’s not the most exciting title, but it’s from the US Department of Energy. Give them a break. Still, if you’re curious to know how much power you are using, how much effect you may be having on mountaintop mining and other sources of electricity, you might do a little math. I did. I wanted to go around and unplug every appliance or power resource I wasn’t using.
In Reinwald’s article, “Going paperless: Are saving the planet?”, it seems that most folks were going paperless for convenience. But it’s a good thing that 70% of U.S. adult employees use direct deposit. “Americans save 452,819 trees per year for every 5 percent of households that switch to electronic bills, statements and payments” (¶ 8). According to PayItGreen.com, American households save enormous quantities of wastewater and gasoline and prevent substantial amounts of greenhouse gases by going paperless.
Still, your carbon footprint may still be bigger than you think because of the data center effect. Data centers—for financial institutions, telecommunications companies, and more—run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They have to because consumers now expect access 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. For our convenience.
So those data centers have huge numbers of servers with redundancy to avoid losing anyone’s data and backup power supplies for the same reason. According to Reinwald, “47 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S. came from the power plants fired by coal. . . . Natural gas-fired plants and nuclear plants each generated 20 percent of power” (¶ 13).
Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of data yet on the data center effect. Earth Day is over and it’ll be easy not to think about the Earth until next April. Perhaps, though, as we blog; post on Facebook; tweet; and charge our tablets, iPads, iPhones, and other digital media, we’ll think about those mountains and wonder about the cost of electricity and how we’ll sustain that supply in our increasingly paperless society.