Paper dates back thousands of years. The paper we know today was created in 105AD by a man named Ts’ai Lun in China. Since the early 2000s, the rise of smartphones and other smart devices has made people question the sustainability of paper-based communications, while largely giving digital media a pass.
Misconceptions about paper sustainability can lead people to believe that paper is bad and digital is good. Despite this, the reality isn’t so clearly defined. Today we rely on both digital and print media to communicate. Each medium has its unique strengths and weaknesses. Yet, paper still gets the cold shoulder, so I want to share some of these major misconceptions about paper and print.
Paperless Isn’t Always Better
A common myth is electronic communication is more sustainable and environmentally friendlier than paper-based communications. You’re probably used to seeing companies market their products with labels like “Go Green,” “Go Paperless,” “Save Trees,” and so on. These are a few of the messages companies use to encourage their customers to switch to electronic forms of communications. But Shamel Naguib, president of Paperless Productivity, says that, “For 99.9% of projects, the green initiative has nothing to do with it… it has everything to do with saving money.” Companies’ motives to switch to paperless aren’t always driven by sustainability, but rather by efforts to cut costs for their own benefit.
The truth is paperless isn’t always better. Globally, billions of electronic devices are used every day. The creation of these devices demands the use of fossil fuels, chemicals, water, precious or rare-earth minerals, as well as other components such as lead, arsenic, and mercury that are harmful to the environment.
Little-Known Facts about Paper Sustainability
On the other hand, paper consists mainly of wood fibers, water, bleach, additional fiber components, dyes and inks, sizing agents such as rosin, gum, and starch, as well as fillers and previously recycled paper. Most of the ingredients used in producing paper are recyclable, and some byproducts from wood processing and pulping are used as a renewable energy source to power the paper manufacturing process. The paper itself continues to trap CO2 throughout its lifetime.
A report published by Two Sides, a non-profit organization representing the paper and print industry, “Print and Paper Myths and Facts,” discusses data related to digital manufacturing and the e-waste and greenhouse gas emission byproducts of these products as well as similar data on paper sustainability. Their findings indicate that electronic device manufacturing can create more pollution and waste than paper manufacturing does.
This past June, Two Sides shared a study carried out by independent research company Toluna, which surveyed more than 3,000 individuals (2,094 Americans and 1,044 Canadians) about environmental topics relating to paper and print. Their findings were quite surprising, to say the least. When asked about the size of forests, 58% believed U.S. forests have been decreasing since 2000. In actuality, forests have had a net growth of more than 1,500 NFL football fields since then.
Another myth is that cutting down trees to make paper destroys wildlife habitats. According to Domtar, a leader in the paper and pulp industry, “Responsible forestry and a thriving forest product industry help sustain wildlife habitats.” Sustainable forest management involves the thinning of forest stands to form open areas while preserving older, denser canopies in other surrounding areas. The diversity of wildlife habitats helps safeguard food supply and the ability of wildlife to prosper.
Don’t Fall for Misconceptions
When you consider the best communication option for your messaging, keep the misconceptions we’ve been discussing in mind. My hope is that you educate yourself more on both sides of the argument, because both paper and digital will be around for many years to come.
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