What is the environmental impact of print media?

Last edition, Nouse printed 2500 copies, but what environmental impact does this actually have?

To produce just one copy of Nouse, 270 grams of wood, 8.5 grams of sulphur, 4 grams of chlorine, 13 grams of calcium carbonate, and 30 litres of water are needed. To put that into perspective, that’s enough water to fill the average kitchen bin. In addition, paper production is an energy-intensive process. The paper industry is the fifth biggest energy consumer on the planet, using four per cent of the world’s energy. However, one redeeming feature of the paper industry is that it contributes less than one per cent to the global greenhouse gas inventory due to high use of renewable energy and biomass.

At the time this article was written, 478 448 879 tonnes of paper have been produced worldwide this year. This requires a substantial amount of timber to produce: 40 per cent of the world’s commercially cut lumber is used in paper production.

Deforestation is one of the biggest problems associated with the paper industry. It can affect biodiversity, soil fertility and water quality. Furthermore, trees act as carbon sinks that seques- ter carbon dioxide from t h e atmosphere and use it for photosynthesis. Therefore, fewer forests lead to a higher concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide – a major contributor to global warming.

Another impact to consider is a newspaper’s carbon footprint. According to Mike LeeBerners, a leading expert in carbon footprinting, a ‘quality’ weekend paper’s edition which is sent to landfill after use has a carbon footprint of 4.1 kilograms. This is roughly equivalent to half a flight from Leeds to London. However, recycling can vastly reduce the environmental impact of a newspaper. It reduces overall water use by 60 per cent, energy use by 40 per cent, air pollution by 74 per cent and water pollution by 35 per cent. Lee-Berners adjusted his carbon footprint prediction if the aforementioned paper was recycled and found that it would drop to only 1.8 kg of carbon released into the atmosphere.

Many of these calculations merely consider the production of the physical newspaper and ignore the processes that go into writing it, such as in offices and meetings. To accurately analyse the impact of a copy of Nouse, we would have to take into account the electricity used to power journalists’ laptops, transportation from the printers to campus, and the energy used to heat the office, along with a myriad of other minor stages to the production process.

Perhaps a move to online journalism would tackle this environmental issue. Using the web to stay updated on current events is possibly a more environmentally sensible concept. However, a closer inspection reveals that producing an online newspaper may perhaps be as environmentally detrimental as printing a physical edition. A study by the KTH Centre for Sustainable Communications found that reading a web-based paper for 30 minutes every day has approximately the same environmental impact as reading a physical newspaper.

The environmental impact of publishing online journalism is less tangible than that of traditional print journalism. While it is necessary to consider the energy used to run the device on which the paper is read, people must also take into account the energy used to power the newspaper’s servers and WiFi routers. On top of this, many electronic devices contain rare metals, such as palladium and cadmium, which are not always widely recycled.

To complicate matters further, there are many factors that affect the outcome of lifecycle assessments, from the type and brand of device used, to the mill at which the paper was manufactured. It also depends which environmental impacts are considered the most important. For example, the large amount of water needed to manufacture paper concerns the UK less than countries with water scarcity. The answer to whether online newspapers are greener than their traditional counterparts is anything but well-defined. With many different factors to consider, there can be no clear-cut conclusion. While the decision to scale back a newspaper’s production may be founded on good intentions, it might not have the desired effect.

However, what is common knowledge is that after finishing a newspaper, such as the one you are reading, recycling it will help negate the environmental consequences of the media industry be it online or printed.

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