Is it better for the environment to read your newspaper online?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Feb. 26 2008 8:42 AM

Should I Cancel My Newspaper Subscription?

The environmental pros and cons of reading online.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

When I finish reading my Sunday newspaper, I can't help but think I've just committed an egregious environmental sin—all those poor trees that had to die so I could titter over inane op-eds, guacamole recipes, and overpriced real estate listings! The greener choice would be to read the paper online, correct?

The Lantern believes so, but the environmental difference between dead-tree newspapers and their online editions is a lot smaller than you might imagine. In fact, there are learned experts who contend that traditional newsprint ultimately comes out ahead, at least in terms of net carbon-dioxide emissions. Though the Lantern disagrees with some of the assumptions these contrarians make, it's worth exploring their arguments in order to better understand how hard it is to calculate a product's cradle-to-grave impact.

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The environmental costs of paper are easy to assess: As you point out, a whole bunch of trees get chopped down in order to provide your Sunday morning entertainment. Manufacturing 1 ton of newsprint, which is enough to create approximately 280,000 broadsheet pages, requires the contents of 12 mature trees. So let's say your weekly indulgence is the Sunday edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which averages 172 pages and has a circulation of 606,698. Those numbers translate into 4,472 trees' worth of paper every week, or 232,544 trees per year.

Forty percent of the Star Tribune'snewsprint comes from recycled material, 5 percent higher than the national average. (American newspapers lag behind their European counterparts in this regard—the average for British papers, for example, is 80 percent.) More than 57 percent of American newsprint originates in Canada, mostly the Canadian Boreal Forest; according to Forest Ethics (PDF), a Canadian NGO, clearcutting is the preferred technique in these regions. Though many logging companies replant felled trees on a one-to-one basis, environmentalists believe these replacement forests (which are often harvested once the trees reach a certain age) are not as effective at storing carbon dioxide as old-growth forests.

Once the logs have been cut, the most energy-intensive phase of the process begins. According to this 2007 report (PDF) from the Sweden's Royal Institute of Technology, newsprint production accounts for roughly two-thirds of a paper's energy consumption. Wood pulping is perhaps the "dirtiest" part of this process (PDF); overall, the Department of Energy estimates that the paper manufacturing industry is the nation's fourth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, trailing only the chemical, petroleum and coal, and primary metals industries.

Finally, you've got distribution costs—trucking all those copies to newsstands and homes, then trucking them back to recycling centers or landfills. About 69 percent of American newspapers are recycled, with about one-third of that newsprint getting shipped to China.

The end result? According to a 2006 report, a single copy of the British tabloid the Daily Mirror, weighing in at 6.4 ounces, accounts for 6.1 ounces of carbon emissions.

Paper may be an energy hog, but so, too, are the servers and desktops that make online newspapers possible. Researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have estimated that the average server consumes 4,505 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, a figure that includes the power used to cool the hardware. (The average American household uses a bit more than 10,000 kWh of electricity annually.) It's not clear how many servers are required to power the typical online newspaper, but if you factor in the third-party ad servers, it's likely in the hundreds.

You also have to account for the electricity required to power the end user's computer. The Swedish report cited above calculated that a person using a 160-watt desktop with a 120-watt screen who reads an online paper for 30 minutes actually does more environmental damage than if he or she had purchased the dead-tree edition. Granted, this report involved 40-page tabloid newspapers, and the wattage figures are a little outdated. You can also quibble over the assumptions about the environmental cost of disposing of computer hardware, which is factored into the Swedish equation—wouldn't we still buy (and throw away) computers if there were no online newspapers?

But the Swedish conclusion is certainly food for thought, as is this recent blog post by Wired editor-in-chief (and my longtime boss) Chris Anderson. He stirred the pot by claiming that the dead-tree version of his magazine is actually more eco-friendly than the publication's Web site, primarily since carbon is kept locked inside the paper. Ideally, copies of the magazine are recycled. But even if an old Wired ends up in a landfill, Anderson argues, the paper will decompose very slowly and become fossil fuel, rather than releasing its carbon into the atmosphere. (By the time that transition to petroleum is complete, our species will hopefully be well beyond the oil era.)

The Lantern isn't quite convinced by this argument; he thinks it underestimates the long-term consequences and carbon emissions of logging in old-growth forests, as well as the nasty pollution created by the wood pulping industry. So, despite the intriguing Swedish report, the Lantern maintains that online newspapers come out ahead of their dead-tree Sunday rivals.

That conclusion is subject to revision, though, if American newspapers start adopting more sustainable environmental practices. The Green Press Initiative, for example, recommends that publishers increase their use of recycled fibers to 50 percent of the total by 2012 and use only virgin fibers that have been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

By the time the industry gets around to making those changes, however, we may have already entered the age of the ubiquitous e-reader. And at this point, no one really knows how the proliferation of such hardware will affect the planet.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

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