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Does switching from Paper to Digital help the Environment? 

Kathryn Dennett reporter  

The argument between paper versus digital is not a black-and-white dilemma. Both choices come with benefits and drawbacks. The environmental cost required to create one paper book can be heavily outweighed by the damage and impact of how much it takes to maintain and keep active vast digital libraries of information. Switching from physical to digital can at best help protect one aspect of the environment at the cost of hurting another. But by doing so someone is trading out one set of problems for new ones. So, at best, one can stop cutting down trees but then they go mine more metals to make computers; these will cause even more environmental damage.  

Clearing trees or even shrubbery from forests is not always a negative thing. There are wildfires that are caused by old dead and dried-up biomass being allowed to accumulate as well as too much thicket being allowed to grow. All fires need fuel to stay ablaze and allowing more fuel to pile up is not going to help with preventing forest fires. The dazzling appeal of saving the trees and trying to cut down on cutting them down has led to what could be considered “over-sheltering” of ecosystems which can lead to even bigger wildfires later.  

One should not feel bad about buying the paperback version of a book over using the digital because at least with paperback any pollution generated and any environmental damage to forests done to create that text only happened once. Every time someone opens their phone or computer to read that very same book, they are using electricity being generated by burning coal or natural gas. It is even worse if it is a piece of literature or a video that is being hosted on a server online. Servers are just computers that run all day and all night for the sole convenience of being able to access them whenever they want even when they are not using them.  

Short-term digital records might be better but their impact on the environment has even more potential to be worse than paperback. There are many hidden costs to digital that make paperback look like green energy. What happens to phones and the contents that make them up after they are discarded? These things may seem unrelated, but the vast digital archives of information humanity have created are reliant on many other interconnected systems from the phones all the way to the manufacturing process needed to create the systems needed to maintain the digital libraries. This might make the switch from paper copies to digital records sound like it is even worse but that would imply going back is the solution. All we would be doing is trading one set of problems out for another set. The real solution is to know when it is better to use digital and when it is better to use paper.  

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