November 11, 2008

ecoReading - environmental impact of different methods of reading news

Original Post from January 23rd 2008.

There has been plenty of noise recently about the environmental effects of printing.

Environmental impact is thankfully becoming an important part of business and companies are taking note, taking initiatives, and doing PR to improve their environmental standing.

While considering the attributes of eReaders (like Sony PRS for example) that use reflective, bi-stable electronic ink displays and the fact they can consume ZERO power while being read, it occurred to me that maybe reading on a computer (especially a higher powered desktop with one or two large displays) might not be the most environmentally friendly way to read.

I asked myself: "Is it so clear cut that print was so bad? "How would print vs. web+PC vs eReader+E-Ink stand-up?"

This week I came across a study, done by "KTH Center for Sustainable Communications" that is part of the "Royal Institute for Technology" in Sweden (their home page in English).
In 2007 they did an extensive study comparing newsprint to web based newspaper reading to ePaper tablet reading of newspapers.

"Screening environmental life cycle assessment of printed, web based and tablet e-paper newspaper"
(link is to the 100 page PDF document in English )

It made interesting reading, and confirmed some of my suspicions: mainly that it was not such a clear-cut deal as some people would have you believe, life is usually more complex than you imagine (or hope?) if you look close enough.

It seems a "Screening Life Cycle Assessment" is an assessment of the environmental impact over the entire life-cycle and includes following the impact of inputs and outputs right back to the environment (e.g. paper production, transportation, electronic manufacture and shipment, recycling, disposal, etc). Screening refers to the fact it is slightly simplified and assumptions are allowed about fairly well known contributors that can be assumed to be small compared to the major contributors, thus simplifying the work considerable. Still it seems very extensive to me.

Covers newsprint, web-based newspaper reading on a PC and tablet e-paper based reading on an iRex Illiad eReader (distributed via web connection). Data taken from a real newspaper that has done work with all three mediums.
Includes scenarios for Sweden and Europe, but not US or elsewhere. There are significant differences even then due to raw material sources (plenty of trees and pulp in Sweden), energy types and cost (hydro), distances for physical distribution (Sweden is huge!), recycling and disposal methods etc.
Impact is calculated for three main categories: Energy use, Global Warming contribution, Human toxicity contribution. These are then combined into an overall measure of impact using a few different standardized methods - but the method used affects the overall measures quite a bit so I'd need to understand them more to comment.

See their document for graphs of calculated results on:
- Energy use
- Global Warming
- Toxicity
- Combined results
- Ecotax 02 min
- Ecotax 02 max
- Ecoindicator 99 (HA)

Some conclusions regarding the studied systems are:

  • The main environmental impact of the printed newspaper was caused by the paper.
  • The main environmental impact of the web based newspaper was caused by the energy use for reading on the screen.
  • The main environmental impact of the tablet e-paper newspaper was caused by the production of the tablet e-paper.

Some conclusions of the case study are:

  • Tablet e-paper has a potential for decreasing environmental impact of newspaper consumption.
  • Key aspects for the environmental performance include:
  1. Number of readers per copy of printed and tablet e-paper newspapers
  2. Reading time for web based newspaper
  3. Lifetime of electronic devices
  4. Multi-use of electronic devices
  • The production and waste management/disposal of the electronic devices become significant activities as the energy use during the use phase is decreased, i.e. the tablet e-paper.
  • The energy use for editorial work becomes significant as the energy use during the use phase is decreased, i.e. the tablet e-paper and even in the other product systems the editorial work is notable.
  • Many of the major contributions to the impact categorized are related to the use of electricity.

My own comments
The editorial work of a newspaper came out as a surprisingly big contributor in all of the three systems studied. Off course it's fairly similar in all three (in absolute terms) and hence doesn't differentiate between them, but if it's the overall environmental impact you're worried about then this would be an area to take a look at.

E-paper comes out not bad in all of the scenarios, in overall impact (no matter how calculated) it's never the worst, the other two interchange first position (i.e. which is worse).

Assumptions affect conclusions a lot (as noted), specifically:

  • They assume eReader is an emerging product category and hence they will have a shorter life-time than a PC (5years) and have only a 1 year life-time (even that seems short). So if a longer life-time for an eReader device is assumed it's overall impact will do down A LOT!
  • Also as noted, the amount of time spent reading or the number of readers of a printed paper affects results a lot.
  • % of a devices impact allocated to news reading. They used 50% for an eReader and 4% for a PC based on earlier studies.

They have also done a study titled "Survey of newspaper production flow for e paper" that I hope to read too soon.

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