Read Online or In Print: What's the Greener Way to Get Your News?

I have to confess that, despite my occupation as blogger, tethered to my laptop and the internet most days of the week, I really prefer to read anything that goes over one or two pages in length in print. However, at the same time I certainly recognize that from a green perspective, for something as essentially disposable as the daily newspaper, that might not be the best way to use natural resources.

So, I went looking to see how much worse printing a newspaper is than reading that news online and came across a study done by the KTH Centre for Sustainable Communications in Stockholm on that very subject. Its long title is, Screening environmental life cycle assessment of print, web based and tablet e-paper newspaper, and the results are somewhat surprising:Each Method Has Different Impact Area
The researchers looked at everything that goes into reporting the news, publishing it either in print, online or distributing it to an e-reader, how it is read (number of readers per copy being an issue) and then disposed of.

Specifically this was what was looked at. For newspaper: Editorial work, producing the newsprint, transporting that paper to the printer, prepress work, printing the paper, distributing the paper, recycling the paper, disposing of the paper (assuming some papers don't get recycled). For online: Editorial work, laying out the paper, producing the computer used to read it, downloading the news, energy used while reading the paper, incineration. For the e-reader: Editorial work, laying out the news, uploading it, production of the device, downloading, reading, incineration.

The researchers found that the greatest contributing factor of each news distribution method was as follows: For printed news it was the production of the paper itself; for online reading it was the energy used to power the computer while reading; for an e-tablet the greatest factor was the production of the device itself.

Online Has Similar Eco-Impact as Print, Sometimes
They examined specific scenarios in Europe and in Sweden and found that for the European scenario,

The ranking from an environmental point of view was in general that tablet e-paper and the web based newspaper with a shorter reading time (10 min), was giving rise to a lower environmental impact than the printed version. With a reading time of 30 minutes/day the environmental impact of the web based newspaper was in general in the same range as the printed newspaper environmental impact.

In other words: If it takes you 30 minutes to read the news, then in conditions similar to those in the researcher’s European scenario, it actually is no worse to print the newspaper than read the same amount of news online. However, if that news only takes you 10 minutes to read then online reading comes out ahead.

That’s In Europe, What About Elsewhere?
Like most things though, it’s not that simple. The scenario in Sweden tilted the balance towards online reading at all reading times.

And what about places, like the United States, which have a markedly different energy mix than Sweden? (The report doesn’t look at the US, but it’s easy enough to make a general extrapolation.) Let’s look at the numbers.

Under the European scenario, reading the news for 30 minutes online produced 35 kilograms of CO2 per year/per reader. Reading the news in a printed newspaper fared better at about 28 kg CO2/yr. At 10 minutes those numbers changed to 14 kg CO2/yr for online reading and a roughly similar number for an e-reader.

Under the Swedish scenario the emissions numbers were lower all around: For 30 minutes of reading, printed newspaper was the worst at 19 kg CO2/yr; reading online was 16 kg CO2/yr. For 10 minutes, reading using an e-tablet had an impact of 10 kg CO2/yr, while reading online had only 6 kg CO2/yr.

Electricity Generation in Sweden Has Much Lower Carbon Emissions Than EU or US
Living in the US, I wanted to know how that might be extrapolated to conditions here. So considering that online reading proved to have the least impact in Sweden in all cases, and that energy use was seen as the greatest impact of online reading in general I naturally turned to how that energy was produced.

In calculating electricity usage the paper used figures for all of Scandinavia and not just Sweden: Hydropower producing 61% of the electricity, nuclear 20%, coal & peat 8%, natural gas 5%, wood 4%, oil 2%, and wind 1%.

The European electricity figures: Nuclear 36%, coal 26%, hydro 16%, natural & industrial gas 15%, oil 7%, wind 1%.

Jumping off from the Swedish research, the US generates its electricity as follows: 49% coal, 22% natural gas, 19% nuclear, 6% hydro, 3% other renewables (geothermal, wind, solar), 1% oil.

Without running through all my calculations of the comparative carbon emissions in each of those situations, on a percentage basis, the EU’s electricity is slightly under three times greater the carbon emissions as Sweden’s, while the US’s is nearly four times as carbon intensive.

US Scenario Likely Closer to Europe Than Sweden...
Granted, there are many other factors at play, but in a broad sense it’s easy to see why in Sweden online reading beats paper. And why, if the US’s electricity is that much more polluting than Sweden’s or Europe’s as a whole that it is likely (again, in the broad stroke) that at reading times of 30 minutes or longer, print could come out ahead here as well; though for the shorter reading times, online still probably wins out. Now if you're getting multiple newspapers delivered and are the only person reading them, and if you live in a particularly rural area that could shift the balance as well.

Down the road, as the drive to decarbonize energy continues, as more places move to an energy mix similar to Sweden (or even greener) the balance for this sort of reading is likely to shift even more strongly towards favoring online.

Which isn’t to say that there isn’t genuine, lasting, and very important historical cultural value in the printed page. This study looked at newspapers alone: A product which unless it is specifically archived is generally disposed of in one way or another soon after reading. Books and some magazines which are intended to last for generations are another thing entirely. But that’s a digression to be sure...


Newspaper readers in Ethiopia. Photo: Terje S Skjerdal via flickr
How Does That Fit Into My Personal Carbon Footprint
For some perspective on how that figures in per capita carbon emissions, someone’s individual carbon footprint, average per capita emissions in the EU last year were about 8.5 tonnes of CO2. While in Sweden per capita emissions were 5.6 tonnes of CO2 per year. In the United States average per capita emissions are more than double those of Europe (shamefully, in my opinion): Slightly under 20 tonnes of CO2 per year.

So, ultimately however you get your news is a small part of your overall carbon emissions. The resources used may be different, and the type of waste created different as well, but from a carbon perspective, at the individual level how you read your news is not a big part of your carbon footprint.

Unless you’ve already signed up for green power (or installed some form of renewable energy at your home) to minimize your carbon footprint from electricity use, absolutely minimized the carbon footprint of your food and transportation methods, maximized your home’s water and energy efficiency, there are probably more pressing green steps you can take to improve the green aspects of your life.

Online & Print Both Have An Eco-Impact, Where It's Located Is Just Different
However, as something to look to for the future, and how we allocate resources in general today, I think it’s still worthwhile paying attention to. Not to mention that the claims that getting your news online really helps the environment aren't categorically true. It may cut down on paper usage, which is no bad thing, but unless your electricity comes from carbon free sources, your just shifting the resource consumption from one place to another.

Want to dig in more? Read: Screening environmental life cycle assessment of print, web based and tablet e-paper newspaper. It’s 174 pages in a PDF, so considering it’ll probably take you far longer than 30 minutes to read it and if your so inclined to delve into it in the first place, you’ll probably keep it around for a while, go ahead and print it. Just use recycled paper.

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Tags: Carbon Emissions | Carbon Footprint | Electronics | Newspapers

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