The Truth about Print vs. Electronic Communication

It seems that every day brings a new challenge for print. One of the more recent ones is a very large misperception that electronic forms of communication are far superior to printed communication from an environmental perspective.

At the heart of this misperception is a marketing campaign called “PayItGreen” started by NACHA, The Electronic Payments Association, which started the concept that “Paper or Print Kills Trees.” The “PayItGreen” program resulted when market research conducted by NACHA found that delivering the message “Paper Kills Trees” resonated with the general public and it would be a strong motivator to get people to switch to paying their bills electronically.

As a result of the “PayItGreen” program, nearly everyone who receives a paper bill also receives the message that electronic bill paying is better for the environment. Unfortunately, this message has permeated and become “an urban myth” that is far from accurate.

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

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

• Paper comes from trees, which are a renewable resource. When properly managed, they provide both economic and ecosystem benefits. If trees were not properly managed, many would simply perish due to disease, fire, and other natural causes. 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 U.S. has increased 49% 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. (Source: International Paper—Go paper, Grow trees website).

• Electronic devices require the mining and refining of dozens of minerals and metals, as well as the use of plastics and other non-renewable resources.

• As compared to printed products, which have a one-time carbon footprint and are made primarily from renewable energy, electronic devices, data centers, and servers require a continuous supply of electricity, powered mostly by non-renewable resources.

• According to the American Forest and Paper Association, 63.5% of all paper used in North America was recovered for recycling, which makes it one of the most recyclable materials. According to the EPA, in 2008 only 13.6% of all electronic waste was recycled, and the remaining 50 to 80% of the waste was shipped overseas to be dismantled in unsafe working conditions. (Source: Electronics Take Back Coalition).

There are more facts that show the importance and viability of print and that using it can actually support sound environmental stewardship. 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 with multiple studies supporting the fact that print has a significant role in modern communication and tremendous value in providing information on many different levels.