To print or not to print?
You may have seen taglines at the end of emails that discourage printing. These messages generally have a picture of a tree, with the implication that reducing paper usage is good for the environment because it reduces demand for harvesting trees. You may also be starting to see contrary advice, which points out the various merits of paper and the forests and forestry associated with its production. So, which is better advice?
If the goal is to minimize environmental impact, then certainly not printing an email message is better than printing one. Reducing consumption is the best of the ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ options. However, the implication that not printing is good because it ‘saves trees’ is misguided: Trees are a renewable product from forests that are (in most of the world) not being deforested. A better reason for reducing unnecessary printing is to reduce the consumption of non-renewable resources (primarily related to energy production) that are required in addition to the wood fiber.
It turns out that the energy use associated with paper production and use is relatively small. A study of (paper) mail, which included all the energy inputs involved with manufacturing paper, printing and transporting the mail, found that the energy we use to power a refrigerator for a year is equivalent to receiving over 5000 letters in the mail.
However, the print-or-not choice raises many other considerations, such as the permanence and security of paper copies compared with electronic storage and the personal preference for reading on screen or reading a paper copy. These considerations will likely be more important for most people that the energy saved by not printing.