Friday, 21 May 2010

The Environmental Effects of Printing

Global Action Plan are partnering with the University of East London in delivering an environmental behaviour change programme surrounding staff printing.  This project is being funded by the JISC who do a great job supporting research projects in UK Universities. 

One of the interesting things about the project is that we are looking at communicating more of the environmental costs of printing to UEL staff.

Most people are aware of the destruction of forestry involved in traditional logging operations.  Up to 42% percent of the global wood harvest goes to the paper and pulp industry (Abromovitz and Mattoon, Worldwatch Paper: Paper Cuts, p. 20, 1999).  UEL has already taken a great proactive step in using recycled paper across the campus which significantly reduces the number of trees required to be harvested.  This means less pressure on forests and the species which rely on them.

What people are less aware of are the other environmental effects the paper and pulp industry has.

Paper production is a large consumer of water, due to soaking of the pulp fibers.  In OECD countries the industry was the single largest industrial consumer of water (OECD Environmental Outlook, p. 218)  The waste water then has a variety of chemicals in it, and this takes further processing to remove, not all of it can be and different countries have different levels of environmental legislation controlling this.

Paper and pulp production is also a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, being the third greatest industrial greenhouse gas emitter in the OECD (OECD Environmental Outlook, p. 218).  This is not including energy use in the running the printers.  Much of the energy used running printers is as they are sitting idle overnight, on weekends and holidays.  Even those which go into standby can still consume a significant amount, and not all do.  Xerox estimated printers were only in use 1-2% of the time.

Then we come to the manufacturing and disposal of printers.  Much of the energy a printer will ever use has been expended in its manufacture.  A range of substances are mined and extracted in its complex machinery, including substances from places in developing countries which don't always have good environmental or labour standards.  They are then transported large distances due to the globalised manufacturing process.  There are also problems with the model of production, especially cheap desktops, where due to the main revenue being from cartridge sales, the printers are priced at disposable levels, making repair much less cost effective than replacement.  Many go to land fill eventually, contributing to a global e-waste problem the UN described as a "mountain of e-waste", much of it ending up being disposed of in the third world, often with a complete absence of environmental or labour concerns.

Hundreds of millions of printer cartridges are purchased every year, and less than half of the cartridges themselves are reused or recycled (Infotrends 2009).  Even those that are returned to refilling depots are often not economically viable to refill and end up in land fill.  The cartridges themselves also use a range of chemicals in their manufacture, which leach out into the environment if not disposed of properly.  They also contribute to the worlds growing e-waste problem.

There are other aspects as well, pollution, paper packaging, transport, toxics from ink and toner, all of which need to be considered.   Taken together, if we can print less, print double sided or two to a page more often, share a printer with colleagues, use more environmentally sensitive paper and print equipment, we can reduce our ecological footprint, without effecting our quality of life.

Like many aspects of our lives, there are complex environmental consequences to our printing behaviours we need to consider in our actions.  The project to make printing more environmentally friendly at UEL will have positive benefits on our environment, far beyond UELs campuses.   This is why as an environmental charity Global Action Plan is happy to be involved in helping UEL take this important initiative.

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