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SPOTLIGHT
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Why save a tree?

Published on -4/24/2014, 9:36 AM

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Kansas school administrators are trampling each other to be the first to embrace "one-to-one" computing. They are going "paperless." United States Department of Education Secretary Duncan calls for all schools to replace printed textbooks with digital devices. Tech companies call for schools to embrace the "digital revolution." They all declare this is environmentally much better than using paper.

But the claim electronic media are environmentally superior to paper is dead wrong.

Trees are the environmentally friendly resource.

Electronic media have a much larger carbon footprint and pose a "hazmat" nightmare when it comes to disposing of electronic waste.

First, paper comes from a renewable resource: wood. Paper now is grown from cloned softwoods that grow fast to provide pulp in a short time. It is farmed. It does not cause deforestation. This is a renewable resource because it constantly is renewed by sunlight through photosynthesis.

And recycling of paper in the United States now is routine. Nearly 60 percent of our paper is from recycled post-consumer sources. Thus, most books, magazines, newspapers and cardboard go to produce more new books, magazines, newspapers and cardboard.

And reading paper print uses no electrical energy at all.

But a person reading an eText constantly is drawing electrical power. Data compiled by the "Climate Group" shows cellphones, computers and all the equipment that drives the computers and social media being used for electronic reading are emitting more than 830 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. That equals more than 2 percent of the man-made carbon footprint worldwide. That exceeds the world's aviation-generated carbon dioxide. Digital media now are our fastest-growing carbon polluter.

Approximately one-fourth of the energy consumed by digital devices is in their manufacture. Nearly three-fourths is spent during their use. The average U.S. citizen uses 440 pounds of paper a year, produced by 500 kilowatt-hours. But one computer can use 500 kilowatt-hours in just five months, more than twice the energy consumption. And that figure does not include the printers, servers, cellphones and school e-reader media.

Electronics have a terrible lifespan compared to paper. Both hardware and software turns over rapidly. Software programs and apps rapidly go obsolete, costing people and institutions dramatically in both money and time for retraining.

Some Kansas principals proclaim electronic media will be so much cheaper than textbooks. They obviously live on another planet.

According to BBC research: "Every year we buy new, updated equipment to support our needs and wishes. In 2012, global sales of new equipment included ... 444.4 million computers and tablets, and 1.75 billion mobile phones. All of these electronics become obsolete or unwanted, often within one to three years of purchase. This global mountain of waste is expected to continue growing 8 percent per year, indefinitely."

Electronic media generate a huge amount of hazardous waste that contains toxic substances: cadmium, mercury, lead, arsenic, beryllium and brominated-flame retardants. When burned at low temperatures -- we usually ship this waste to poor third world countries -- it creates some of the most toxic substances known.

The next time a techno-crazy brags they are "saving a tree" by going paperless, point to your printed books. In classrooms and libraries, our safe, clean, mostly recycled paper books are the sequestered carbon helping offset their larger, more costly and toxic electronic carbon footprint.

John Richard Schrock is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences

at Emporia State University.

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