printing v digital communications: what’s best environmentally?

Oli Burrows

Customer Services

printing v digital communications: what’s best environmentally?

Has Greenwashing ever influenced your communication preferences? Do you see digital communications as more sustainable than print? We explore the environmental reality of printing versus digital communications to reveal that all is not as it may seem.

is print bad for the environment?

Printed communications aren’t bad for the environment. Paper is a very sustainable product, made from wood, which is a natural and renewable material. 

But, in recent years, Greenwashing has become a major irritant for the printing and packaging industry. Organisations of all shapes and sizes misinform their public, citing sustainability as a reason to switch away from paper-based communications. 

To date, the Two Sides Anti-Greenwash campaign has successfully challenged and prompted 1,145 organisations worldwide to remove deceptive messages associated with print and paper. Misleading slogans, like “Go online and save trees”, have been called out for falsely claiming environmental benefits to going digital.

paper’s environmental credentials

The paper industry is heavily regulated by certification schemes such as Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification® (PEFC®) to ensure virgin fibres used in paper manufacture are sustainably sourced. 

The continuous demand for paper promotes the planting of healthy, managed forests. Between 2005 and 2020, European forests grew by an area the size of Switzerland, creating green spaces for wildlife and recreational use.  

Two Sides factographic stating that between 2005 and 2020 European forests grew by an area larger than Switzerland

Paper’s positive impact continues through the production process. The European paper industry is the continent’s largest single industrial user and producer of renewable energy. In 2019, over half of the energy used in the pulp and paper industry came from biomass, including process by-products, such as wood residue and bark. Furthermore, paper manufacture often uses the by-products and waste produced by other wood-based industries, such as sawmill chips, sawdust, and forest thinnings.

Printed communications' main claim to sustainability fame is that they can be recycled. The European paper industry is a leading recycler, with around 74% of paper being recycled across Europe and paper fibres used around 3.5 times to make new paper products.

Two Sides factographic stating that the European paper recycling rate is 74%

are digital communications better for the environment?

While its environmental impact is less tangible, our reliance on technology still poses serious sustainability questions. There are two things to consider when evaluating the sustainability of digital communications: data storage and e-waste.

Data storage may seem abstract and ethereal, but extensive material infrastructure is necessary to process and store digital information. The energy requirements of data centres are eye-watering, collectively utilising more energy than some countries. According to research by MIT, the Cloud now has a greater carbon footprint than the entire airline industry

Alongside energy use, any assessment of the environmental impact of digital communications must also consider the electronic devices required to facilitate them. The production of mobile phones, computers, and servers involves mining and processing challenging materials – highly reactive metals such as lithium and barium and toxic heavy metals such as lead and mercury. All are in finite supply, and enormous quantities of energy go into their extraction, refinement, and manufacture.

There is also an energy cost to manufacture electronic devices and they are notoriously challenging to recycle. Unlike paper and cardboard, electronic waste must be broken down into its individual components to be recycled – both time-consuming and expensive. There are also currently no standardised e-waste recycling policies for businesses, and it is estimated that only around 16-20% of e-waste is recycled annually.

continuing the print vs. digital debate

If you’d like to learn more about the environmental impact of printing vs. digital communication, Two Sides is a great source of information.

Here at Holywell Press, we believe printed communications are more sustainable and more impactful than digital (more on that in my next blog post). And we’re doing more than most local printers to ensure customers' printed communications are produced with environmental consideration: 
•    generating electricity with the solar panels on our factory roof
•    printing on FSC® and PEFC™ certified paper
•    participating in the Woodland Trust’s Carbon Captured scheme
•    reusing paper packaging to reduce waste
•    recycling everything we can, and
•    delivering locally in a fully electric van

To make your move to more sustainable printing, get in touch on 01865 242098 or contact us using the button below.

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