Association Insights: The Environmental Truth about Print and Electronic Communication

For the printing industry, it seems that every day brings a new challenge for print. One of the more recent ones is a very large misperception supported by surveys that electronic forms of communication are far superior, from an environmental perspective, than the printed form of communication.

At the heart of this misperception is a marketing campaign called PayitGreen. NACHA, The Electronic Payments Association, started the concept that paper or print kills trees. NACHA found that delivering the message “Paper Kills Trees” resonated with the general public, and it was a strong motivator to get people to pay their bills electronically.

As a result of the PayitGreen program, just about every person who receives a paper bill also receives the message that electronic bill paying is better for the environment. Unfortunately, this message has become somewhat of an urban myth, but it is far from accurate.


Cold, Hard Facts

In understanding the environmental impact of any product, one needs to examine both the upstream and downstream environmental impact associated with it. Understanding the total cost to the environment and human health is a key elements embodied in sustainability, but too often these principles are not applied when it comes to the newest electronic technology.

There is no doubt that society has become more dependent upon electronic communication. The questions, from a sustainability perspective, are at what cost and what cost is acceptable?

So, as you consider the message that “Paper Kills Trees”, consider these facts:

• Paper comes from trees, which are a renewable resource that, properly managed, provide both economic and ecosystem benefits. According to the latest data in The State of America’s Forests, a 2007 report by the Society of American Foresters, forested land in the US increased 49 percent from 1953 to 2006.

• Using paper motivates private landowners, who provide most of the pulp for papermaking, to actually plant more trees. Private landowners plant about four million trees every day, which is three to four times more than they harvest. This gives them the income they need to maintain, renew, and manage this valuable forest resource sustainably. Without that income, landowners face economic pressures to convert forestland to other uses, including growing more profitable crops or selling the land for development. (Source: International Paper—Go Paper, Grow Trees website)

• Electronic devices require the mining and refining of dozens of minerals and metals as well as plastics, hydrocarbon solvents, and other non-renewable resources. Several key metals are classified as “conflict metals”, and their use from the Congo region requires reporting to the US government.

• According to the American Forest and Paper Association, paper in North America is made with about 60 percent renewable energy. According to the US Energy Information Administration, approximately 89 percent of the electricity used in the US comes from non-renewable fossil fuels.

• Printed products have a one-time carbon footprint. Electronic devices, data centers, and servers require a continuous supply of electricity. According to Greenpeace, if the global cloud was a country, its aggregate electricity demand would make it among the top five in the world. Many of these centers are located in areas powered by coal and other dirty sources of electricity. Some coal is obtained by mountain top removal mining, which decimates ecosystems.

• Paper is one of the most recyclable materials. According to the American Forest and Paper Association, 63.5 percent of all paper used in North America was recovered for recycling, which makes it one of the most recyclable materials. According to EPA, in 2008 only 13.6 percent of all electronic waste was recycled, and the remaining 50 to 80 percent of the waste was shipped overseas to be dismantled. The dismantling process is unsafe for workers and surrounding communities, and usually involves burning the waste to recover the metals. (Source: Electronics Take Back Coalition)

Print vs. electronic media is never a reasonable comparison as both have some measure of environment impact. However, it is important to understand that print is both an effective and sustainable form of communication. Multiple studies support the fact that print has a significant role in modern communication and tremendous value.

Gary A. Jones is assistant, vice president EHS Affairs for Printing Industries of America. Contact him at Learn more about Printing Industries of America at