Hard copy vs. soft copy: Is digital storage greener than traditional media?

Submitted by: Joan MacKenzie 04/03/2012

For some time, the general consensus has been that digital storage of information is more sustainable and produces less carbon than a hard copy, in the form of paper, CD’s and tape. How true is this when taking the full life cycle of a document or piece of media into account?

March 2, 2012- Paper, on the face of it, has a high carbon footprint. The Heinz Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment conducted a study on the lifecycle of paper several years ago, which found paper mill emissions contributed around 60 per cent to the overall emissions, with transportation and the final fate of the paper making up the majority of the rest of the emissions. Printing on the paper and forestry were exceedingly small in comparison. In paper production just over a ton of carbon dioxide is emitted for every ton of paper produced. This however, was based on producing a magazine; the study found that standard typing paper could actually have a negative carbon impact in terms of production, with the form of land use contributing to a net carbon sink.

The most important part of the sustainability of paper lies in its eventual demise – recycling or landfill acts to sequester the carbon inherent in the paper, whilst incineration returns the carbon to the atmosphere.

So how do digital media stack up against this? A report by climate change consultants ICF found one spam email had an equivalent carbon emission of 0.3 grams. But the emissions created by sending an email largely depends on the server used to send the message. The same study suggests an average emission from one business persons annual email usage to be around 130kg/year.

Another area for potential emissions is data storage; at one stage the majority of information was stored on paper, and whilst there were certainly carbon emissions associated with this paper production, once created, there was no ‘maintenance cost’ in terms of carbon. Today, most information is stored on hard drives; this means there is an initial cost in terms of producing the storage device, and an additional cost in maintaining the system. Whilst storing information on a hard drive does not use up energy in itself, computers are generally kept running for long periods of time in order to provide instant access to the data, something which never occurred with paper records.

Cloud computing is one method that is hoping to reduce the environmental impact of data storage. It has been demonstrated that using a dedicated network of computers for the express purpose of allowing instant access to data, in effect combining small sets of data into a more efficient mega-database, can save a significant amount of energy. This is already becoming an industry standard and can go some way to reducing emissions from computing.

Compact discs have long been a staple of society, although they are today fast losing their grip in a world increasingly dominated by soft copy data. Nevertheless, there have been an unfathomable amount of CD’s created in the last 30 years – there are many sound bites commenting that end to end, the number of CD’s created could stretch around the world ‘x’ amount of times. There have been various figures suggested for the carbon emissions created by a CD, but the music industry puts the figure at between 160-500g per disc, depending on whether one uses a plastic jewel case or a cardboard sleeve. The CD itself is estimated to cost around 100g of carbon dioxide.

How does a music download compare? This considers two factors: the energy used by the music providers’ servers, and the energy used in downloading on the pc. Estimates on this are around 14g of carbon dioxide. However, the production costs are dwarfed in comparison by the energy used repeatedly listening to the music, which depends on the hardware used to play it. Playing music on a computer is very inefficient, using up far more energy than a personal stereo or CD player.

The problem it seems does not lie with the type of media being used, but the sustainability of the processes behind it. An email sent using a low energy highly efficient server will be considerably greener than one on an inefficient server. On the other hand, this applies to physical media as well; paper produced from a sustainably sourced forest, disposed of or recycled mindfully can be carbon neutral or better.

Infrastructure is the key to both reducing carbon emissions and creating a more sustainable world data environment. The main advantage of soft digital media are perhaps, the reduction in eventual waste and the preservation of dwindling natural resources, which can now be used for other purposes. Plastic is becoming a huge challenge for the world, and reducing the production of CD’s must surely be beneficial to the environment. What we must be careful of though, is to assume that unseen ‘hidden’ emissions are not forgotten emissions.