Ask Pablo: Will iPads in the Cockpit Really Lower Airlines' Paper Use?

cockpit photo

Photo by comedy_nose via Flickr CC
Dear Pablo: Two airlines have recently switched from paper flight records to iPads. Is this really an environmental improvement?
TreeHugger recently covered news of two airlines (, followed by United Continental) that have switched to iPads to replace about 38 pounds of paper in the cockpit and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 3,208 metric tons. Writer Jaymi Heimbuch asks "But when you stop to think that the savings is equivalent to about two people flying across the country, is the savings really worth it?" Well, is it? And is the iPad really better than all that paper?

What Is The Impact Of An iPad?

Apple publishes LCA data on their products so information on so the environmental impact of iPads is relatively easy to obtain, although we are taking their word for the accuracy of their numbers. Apple estimates that the total life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of an iPad are 105 kg CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalents), 60% of which are from manufacturing, 10% from transport, 29% from the use phase (which consists mainly of charging), and 1% for end-of-life recycling. To put this into perspective, the average US passenger vehicle (22.5 MPG) emits this much every 236 miles. Apple also includes information on its efforts to maximize material efficiency, reduce packaging, and eliminate the use of certain toxic substances.

What Is The Impact Of Paper?

The "Electronic Flight Bag" (EFB) will replace an average 12,000 sheets of paper per pilot, greatly reducing the weight that needs to be lugged around the airport by the pilots. Of course not all of this paper is printed fresh for every flight but it certainly adds up. United Continental estimates that it will be eliminating the use of 16 million sheets of paper. The weight reduction alone will avoid the combustion of 326,000 gallons of fuel, or 3,208 metric tons CO2e. In context, this is roughly the emissions from 28 coast-to-coast flights (airplane trips, not individual passenger trips). The avoided paper manufacturing and printing would also save around 136 metric tons CO2e but, if the paper used is recycled (as we should hope) the emissions would be reduced by 66 tons, due to the avoided manufacture of virgin paper, according to the EPA's WARM model to 70 CO2e. By recycling the used paper, the total would be reduced by a further 30 tons, to 40 metric tons CO2e.

So, Which Is Better: The iPad or Paper?

The claimed reduction of 16 million sheets of paper would weigh about 23 metric tons. With almost 2 million departures annually, this only comes out to an average 11.5 grams of new paper per flight, or about 8 sheets of paper.

According to United Continental will be deploying 11,000 iPads, the total associated emissions would be 1,155 metric tons CO2e (at 105 kg per iPad) and the total emissions per year from continued paper use would be between 3,248 and 3,344 tons of CO2, depending on if the paper is from recycled sources and is recycled after use. From this it is clear that the environmental benefit is in favor of the iPads. Of course an iPad won't last forever, but even if we assume that they are replaced every year, the balance is still in favor of the iPad.

There are other considerations though. The manufacture and disposal of electronics is not without its environmental issues which are not quantified in greenhouse gas calculations. There are very tangible effects associated with resource extraction of the rare substances used in high-tech devices include intentional toxic waste disposal in lakes and unintentional toxic waste spills. Other issue include eWaste disposal, as well as intangible effects such as labor issues, including child labor, conflict minerals, and factory working conditions.

My final questions are:
  • What happens when the pilot accidentally sits on the screen? Will critical documents still need to be printed to avoid potential catastrophe?
  • What happens if the battery runs out? Will pilots have redundant iPads at their disposal? And finally,
  • Will the iPads have to be turned off and properly stowed during the first and last ten minutes of flight?

Do you have any unanswered questions or thoughts on this topic?

Pablo Päster is a weekly columnist for and Principal Environmental Consultant at Hara Software. Send your questions to Pablo(at) or submit the via this form and connect to his RSS feed.
More TreeHugger Articles On iPads:
Another Airline Switches from Paper to iPads, But Are The Savings Worth It?
American Airlines Switching From Paper to iPads, Will Save $1.2 million In Fuel
Apple iPad 2 Comes In Black and White, But Not Green

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