Digital Records Versus Paper: Is There Green in Black and White?

Going digital is a hot technology trend. Whether it is the hospital that stops managing medical records on paper, the utility company urging its customers to go digital or the ad campaign that equates saving money, going digital and buying handhelds for reading pleasure, tech is green. But is it really?
Going Digital as a Fashionable Push

Consumers who do their banking or bill-paying online are likely encouraged by the companies with which they do business to start going digital. Saving money, going digital and not receiving paper records to store at home are lauded as the consumer’s way of going green. Yet when pitting digital records versus paper, does tech really come out looking greener? Are paper records truly the bogeyman they are made out to be?

Digital Records versus Paper Debate

Paper records or books require wood products for manufacture. Managed forests ensure that natural habitats are not destroyed by logging. Of course, eventually paper records disintegrate and their manufacture is messy and energy-laden.

Going digital preserves data for the ages; digital records can be updated frequently and rather than printing out numerous copies for a board meeting, the screen can be displayed for as many participants as care to attend.

On the downside, the rapid developments in the technology render today’s top models obsolete in two to five years, contributing to the staggering mountains of electronic waste that are currently languishing in residential garages and landfills. Tech manufacture is also a messy, energy-hogging business.

Saving Money, Going Digital ≠ Green?

Don Carli from the Institute for Sustainable Communication urges caution. Going digital might be a good option but when looking at digital records versus paper, it is not a green slam-dunk for technology.

Paper records kill trees; this makes going digital look like the green choice. No longer managing medical records on paper but instead going digital requires the manufacture of computers, which in turn requires the use of oftentimes toxic chemicals; looked at from this angle, paper records look indeed greener.

Carli contends that neither approach is true while both hold promise. In other words, going paperless is no greener than completely eschewing the use of technology in favor of paper. He strongly cautions against an ‘all or nothing’ thinking and also urges care when using carbon footprint calculators to support one or another position.

Since there is no standardization in the calculations, cherry-picking data is likely. Even so, when researching the carbon footprints of digital records versus paper workflow, the startling discovery must sober the eco-friendly consumer into recognizing that both contribute to the use of electricity and thus are guilty of emitting CO2.

Happy Middle Ground?

Xerox has already risen to the challenge with its high yield business paper that uses only about 50 percent of the number of trees that conventional print paper requires. Its manufacture relies on less water and fewer chemicals. Production takes place at a plant that utilizes hydroelectricity and reduces greenhouse gases by 75 percent. The consumer will be interested to learn that Xerox’s innovation also increases the amount of pages per pound, which in turn lessens shipping costs.

A welcome step in the right direction, saving money, going digital and going green may indeed not be all one and the same. Even so, going digital requires greener technologies while paper records must rely on alternative methods of manufacture.

It is obvious that there is more to the digital records versus paper sheets debate than meets the eye. Who knew?

Don Carli. “Which Medium Is More Sustainable? Paper or digital?” (accessed February 24, 2010)
Xerox. “The New Xerox High Yield Business Paper” (accessed February 24, 2010)

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