Paper versus the iPad: Is taking notes on a tablet computer or a notepad more environmentally responsible?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Sept. 6 2011 6:55 AM

Green Your Notes!

Is taking notes on a notepad or an iPad more environmentally responsible?

Taking notes. Click image to expand.
What's the most environmentally responsible way to take notes?

Until now, I've taken my class notes the old-fashioned way, scrawling and scribbling on a legal pad. All this talk of tablets and note-taking apps has piqued my interest, but I worry about the environmental impact. How many pages of notes would I have to take before a tablet or laptop would be better for the earth?

You have to admire paper, a 19-century-old technology that can hold its own against 21st-century computers. The dissimilarity between the two products, however, makes comparing them difficult. The raw materials used to manufacture tablets and those used for paper are so vastly different that they inflict dissimilar damages on the earth. In addition, tablets are versatile devices, so it's not clear how much of their embedded energy— the fuel required to manufacture, deliver, and dispose of your device—we should attribute to note-taking. Nevertheless, they can serve the same function, so it's only fair to attempt a comparison.

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Let's start with greenhouse gases, the common denominator in most environmental-impact analysis. If you already own a tablet and you're thinking about using it as a note-taking device, it's time to retire your ballpoint. According to data from the Environmental Paper Network, producing a single sheet of paper with no recycled content is responsible for about 0.03 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents being released into the atmosphere. (A carbon dioxide equivalent is a unit used to express all greenhouse gases, including methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases, in terms of the impact of carbon dioxide.) By contrast, an iPad uses about 3 watts per hour, which results in the release of 0.004 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents. That means you could take notes on an iPad for more than seven hours before surpassing the greenhouse gas emissions of a single sheet of paper. Unless you write really, really small, or your professors rarely say anything worth writing down, the tablet wins.

Switching to 100-percent post-consumer recycled paper changes the calculus, but not nearly enough to tip the scales. Producing a sheet of recycled paper releases 0.017 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents. Given this figure, you could run the iPad for four hours before surpassing the greenhouse gas emissions of this relatively eco-friendly sheet of paper.

But if you plan on purchasing a tablet for the sole purpose of taking notes, the equation changes. (Though the scenario seems rare—at the very least, you could download the Slate app—it's worth considering as an edge case.)

Using an iPad accounts for less than 30 percent of its lifetime greenhouse gas emissions. Manufacturing (60 percent), transport (10 percent), and end-of-life recycling (1 percent) are responsible for the rest. Apple estimates that, over an iPad's entire lifetime, the device will account for 231 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents. (The company doesn't disclose how many hours of use that includes, only that it assumes "intensive daily use" for three years, which sounds about right for a student with a full course load.) That's roughly equivalent to the emissions stemming from 7,700 sheets of virgin paper or a whopping 13,600 sheets of 100-percent post-consumer recycled paper. It's unlikely that a college student would go through the equivalent of 113 spiral-bound notebooks before falling for the iPad 3.

As you're probably aware, paper raises environmental issues beyond greenhouse gas emissions. Manufacturers are sawing down native trees around the world to make room for eucalyptus trees and loblolly pines. While these species have excellent paper-making fiber and require less bleaching than many native varieties, biology superstar E.O. Wilson estimates that the industrial plantations reduce biodiversity by 90 to 95 percent. They also require pesticides and herbicides, which can impact water quality. Native forests are being converted to tree farms in the southern United States, and at particularly alarming rate in Indonesia. Office Depot and Staples have agreed not to sell paper products made from unsustainably harvested Indonesian pulp, but your best bet is to buy Forest Stewardship Council-certified paper.

Tablets don't directly result in deforestation, but they do require rare earth metals like coltan that are mined in environmentally (and politically) sensitive areas like the Congo. (In April, several major electronics companies set up rules to prevent revenues from rare earth metals from funding wars, but it's not yet clear if that will stop the trade or merely shift the distribution routes.) In addition, the iPad is just the end-user piece of a massive cloud-computing network. If you're planning to use apps like Simplenote or Evernote, you should also consider the environmental impacts of the network as a whole.

The simplest answer to this query is that you shouldn't buy something you don't need. So, if you already have a tablet, use it for note taking instead of buying reams of paper. And squeeze as many years as possible out of your current tablet before getting a new one. If you're thinking of buying a tablet just for note-taking, reconsider. The Earth would be better off if you stuck with recycled paper. You can even get a little creative. Collect all those one-sided printouts your professor gives you—professor still use handouts, don't they?—and fashion your own notebook out of wastepaper.

The Lantern thanks Joshua Martin of the Environmental Paper Network.

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