In a recent commentary, Fred Bercovitch, a wildlife conservation biologist at Kyoto University, challenged conventional wisdom that a paperless workplace is more environmentally friendly than one using paper.
by Phil Riebel, President, Two Sides North America
“Arguing about paper or paperless as a more ecofriendly tactic is as productive as arguing about how many angels fit on the head of a pin… There is no free-ride, only conscientious attempts to keep the ride as low cost as possible.” Dr. Fred Bercovitch
Dr. Bercovitch points out that our increasingly paperless society “has a gigantic ecological footprint”. Tablets, laptops, desktops, cellphones and fiber optic data transmission networks which may all replace paper in some ways, not only take vast amounts of energy to produce and function; their operation requires the use of rare earth elements (REEs). “And, herein lies the conservation conundrum because the extraction and use of REEs devastates the environment.”
REEs must be extracted from the ground through open pit mining “which involves gouging out humongous areas of land to substantial depths and bringing the resultant material to a location for the extraction”. This mining consumes large amounts of fossil fuels, results in air and water pollution and leaves behind scarred ecosystems. During extraction, REEs are separated from the geological material that encrusts them using water, solvents, chemicals, and toxic metals which may pollute the air, ground, or water with devastating consequences. The unwanted rocky leftovers often contain radioactive material, which tends to be found in the same deposits as the REEs.
REEs are not really "rare" but it is unusual to find them in concentrations high enough for economical extraction. They have special properties that are crucial to our modern devices and are irreplaceable since synthetics do not exist. There are no substitutes for REEs.
Although only tiny amounts of REEs may be used in each device, at a global scale the amounts are enormous. For example, a typical cell phone contains a little over 0.1 ounce of neodymium (in the tiny rechargeable battery in the screen), and europium, terbium, and yttrium (in the liquid crystal display screen). In the U.S. alone, there are roughly as many cell phones as there are people and therefore about 1000 tons of REEs are embedded in just this one kind of device. Worldwide, close to 150,000 tons of REEs are used every year in the manufacture of electronic devices and instruments.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that most people obtain a new cell phone about every 18 months and that only 1 to 10 % of cell phones are recycled in the USA. The rest end up in landfills as electronic waste. In 2005, about 65,000 tons of electronic waste in the USA was from cell phones, or less than 1% of the electronic waste generated by the United States.
Dr. Bercovitch notes that “We live in an era of constant demand for more and better electronic devices. That demand requires more REEs, as well as more electricity for both manufacture and use of the multiple devices.” This results in “an unseen, but not invisible, impact on the environment.”
While paper production does have an environmental cost, it also has the following unique inherent sustainable features over many other products (for example electronics):
There are few products around us that can boast these sustainable qualities.
Click here to read Dr. Bercovitch’s commentary.