Science & Sustainability

by Richard M. Goodman

How many times has someone said that substituting electronic communications for paper-based communications is good because you can “save a tree?”  At first this seems to be a no-brainer; how can distributing information electronically not be better than using a piece of paper?  That’s where the concept of sustainability comes in.  Sustainability preaches that we leave earth’s resources in better shape after we are done than before or at least at an even position.

It is true that paper companies plant more trees than they harvest.  (For the record, we are not talking about destruction of virgin forests but the more likely harvesting of young growth trees strictly for paper stock.)  It is also true that we can recycle a significant amount of the paper we use.  On the other side we discard electronics at an alarming rate; lifetimes of 2 years or less are common for many devices. The discarded electronics often contain toxic or limited resources.  Also, what about the source of power for the devices and the Internet?  It is almost always sourced from coal or other cheap but dirty fuels.

Now I don’t want to get into a detailed debate, however, it turns out that the comparison between printing information and transmitting by electronic media is not always in favor of electronics.  I belong to a working group that is part of the International Standards Organization (ISO), a global initiative to provide useful standards for virtually every industry.  One of the recent endeavors has been to exactly address the question of electronic vs. paper for all communications.  The conclusion from the initial study: “Users of this international standard should acknowledge that the CFPs (carbon footprints) developed according to requirements from different communication programs may not be comparable.”  In short, it’s not clear when comparing diverse technologies, which has the best carbon footprint or environmental friendliness – reinforcing the notion that green is the new gray.

Richard M. Goodman, PhD, is a chemical scientist and consultant focusing on how surface science concepts can solve real world problems.  The periodic column considers aspects of sustainability from a scientific perspective. See Goodman’s profile with Association of Consulting Chemists and Chemical Engineers (ACC&CE) at