Taking E-Waste Seriously

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As a member of the business community, it’s interesting to see what business owners and executives are thinking about in terms of sustainability and where they are placing their priorities. That’s why a recent online discussion about e-waste caught my eye.  An industrial media company in Belgium had suddenly begun looking into the issue of e-waste and was re-evaluating the sustainability of print versus electronic media.

Hooray! It’s about time!

The conversation was in-depth, complex, and fascinating, and over the next few posts, I want to share some thoughts gleaned from it. I’ll open with the comments of  Hugh Griffin, self-described “markitect” at BURGECOOPER in Los Angeles, which set the tone for the entire conversation. I’ve edited his comments lightly for space.

At the end, feel free to chime in!

The jury is out because the total carbon footprint of e-com and e-waste has been glossed over and never accurately measured. Yes, printing has impact (like most every type of manufacturing), but most of its end products:

  • Do not suck energy 24/7
  • Do not contain toxic materials which cannot be safely recycled, thus don’t have to be foisted off on third world countries who will have toxic waste legacies for decades to come
  • Are made using papers from resources grown specifically for that purpose and which have proven to do far more “good” for the environment than any negative impact.

Those who — rightfully, in my view — worry about trees need to face facts: the clearcutting which occurs worldwide to enable strip mining (coal for fossil fuel to run their devices, heavy metals to create batteries and circuits, etc.) is wildly more abusive than tree farms planted expressly to yield wood pulp and are re-planted as harvested (unlike clear cut areas devoted to strip mining).

There was a wonderful study (just published) done in Finland over several years which extensively measured the total carbon footprint of printing, and the fully documented results are astonishingly more favorable on the impact of print relative to other methods of communication.

The reality is, both types of communication have merit, both serve purposes and enable results the other cannot eliminate or totally replace, but the e-PR crowd has invested years and endless millions trying to spin their endeavors as somehow virtual and “throw printing and paper under the bus” at every opportunity.

Frankly, the printing industry was asleep at the wheel in not responding to this with facts many years back. They are only now beginning to wake up, and if they’re wise, the next step they ought to fund is totally objective, scientific study of the total carbon footprint of e-communications to their print equivalents.

Win or lose, we all need to know the facts.

Griffin then asked readers to stop and ponder the spin one finds supporting e-com.  For example . . .

1) Cloud Computing

Reality: The “Cloud” consists of mega acres of ground-based servers all sucking fossil fuel energy 24/7, all constantly having to dump older servers and networks as they upgrade.

2) Virtual communication

Reality: All virtual endeavors run on real world platforms.

3) Net Freedom

Reality: What many states are only now reacting to is the “freedom” to avoid charging or paying state sales taxes while burdening them with the actual operating costs of their residents using these services. Amazon still doesn’t get it. They just tried to spin South Carolina refusing to give them tax exempt status for a ‘distribution facility’ there. Fact is, as all states wake up, Amazon may run out of localities to exploit and start having to collect and remit sales taxes as they always should have. “Too complex” is their claim so far. Please, infinitely less sophisticated companies with fewer than 100 employees have been doing this for decades.

I’m probably sounding like an “anti e-com” Luddite, let me conclude by stating: I’m a huge fan of e-technology. I think they’ve done (and will continue to) do truly remarkable things which have immeasurable benefits for society ahead. But it’s time they become environmentally “transparent” & fully responsible like other industries.

Okay, your turn. Chime in. What do you think?

2 thoughts on “Taking E-Waste Seriously”

  1. You have done a great service to the force of reason in this short article.  There is a place for e and a place for print and a place for the two working together, which they normally do.  Being real and transparent in this discussion is important.   I run a 24/7 computer center and do print.  Productivity and balance of speed with responsible environmental management make the selection of media and media mix more reasonable.  It does not appear anyone can trace all the impacts.  But reason and balance need to prevail.

    1. Heidi Tolliver-Nigro

      Phil, I’d love to talk to you about how you make these decisions. Try to connect with me through LinkedIn or Facebook and let me pick your brain! (I’ll try to find you, as well.)

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