And tell the real story of print and paper

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It is easy to assume that using a computer at home or surfing the internet on a laptop costs next to no energy, but the truth could not be more different. In two separate recent studies, the internet was shown to be responsible for emitting 300 million tonnes of CO2 each year; as much as all the fossil fuels burned in Poland; and more than half of the fossil fuels burned here in the UK.

The ‘internet’ is technically all of the computers, including yours, connected at any given moment to the World Wide Web (www). As it is impossible to know just how much time one spends offline or online, estimates of the internet’s exact energy consumption can never be known, but most calculations, such as the one above, rely on a 50/50 split of online / offline PC usage.

It is relatively straightforward to calculate personal CO2 emissions for internet usage. Latest published figures show that there are 1.9 billion regular internet users in the world. The annual CO2 emissions for each user is therefore 300,000,000,000 kg’s divided by 1,900,000,000 users = 157 kg’s CO2 per annum. If we assume that each user accesses the internet 7 days per week 365 days per year, then the daily CO2 emissions for an average user is:

157 kg’s / 365 days = 0.43 kg’s per day .

0.43 kg’s of CO2 does not sound a great deal, but it is sufficient to boil a full kettle of water approximately five times. Perhaps of greater interest here, however, is the comparison of this figure to a printed product.

As readers of the FOPAP website will have learned, it is our assertion that the carbon contained in paper products is sufficient to offset the energy costs of manufacturing and printing on it, as the paper does not decay in landfill and therefore its carbon ought to be allowed as a credit against these processes. However, for the purposes of comparing internet emissions to printing emissions in the scenario presented here, we will ignore this advantage for now and account only for CO2 emissions related to manufacturing the paper, printing on it and delivering it to a given destination.

Let us consider a print run of 5,000 copies of an A4 full colour double sided leaflet printed on a reasonable quality paper. The CO2 emissions for such a printed product would equate to approximately 100 kg’s. Therefore, the CO2 emissions per copy are:

100 kg’s divided by 5,000 copies = 0.02 kg’s per copy .

This is c. 20x less than the emissions associated with one day of internet usage, which, in constant usage terms, would equate to perhaps 2 or 3 hours. If we assume 3 hours constant usage, one sheet of printed product possesses the same CO2 footprint as 9 minutes internet usage time. Moreover, if the print run were extended to 100,000 copies, the CO2 footprint per copy would drop to 0.13 kg’s, or 32x less than 3 hours internet use, equivalent to just 5.5 minutes online.

The CO2 emissions from spending 5 ½ minutes on the internet are equivalent to a full colour paper leaflet of size A4 printed and delivered to your door.

There are, of course, benefits associated with each medium. The internet is readily accessible and can be searched quickly and easily to retrieve a vast amount of information and knowledge. Conversely, the printed medium is more transportable. It can be taken from room to room and filed for instant retrieval; moreover, it can be retrieved an unlimited amount of times for exactly zero CO2 emissions. It is durable, reliable, tactile and accessible – for both internet and non-internet users. It also has a shelf life vastly greater than 5 ½ minutes!

Perhaps the greatest benefit of all, however, is the one that we have completely ignored for this comparison – the chemistry of the printed product itself. The carbon in the paper was once resident in the atmosphere but is now safely locked up in the fibres of the product itself. What is more, the ink that has been applied to it now protects it from bacterial intrusion and decomposition – extending its life greatly underground which is, of course, its ultimate destination. And here it will stay a very, very long time indeed, helping to reduce atmospheric CO2 and slow down the effects of global warming.

Learn more about how paper acts as a 'carbon sink'


FOPAP responds to a randomly selected emedia 'greenwash' originally published


"Over 5 million tonnes of paper ends up in landfill every year. In the developed world landfill sites are still the most popular disposal route for paper. Paper emits methane whilst decomposing – a potent greenhouse gas. In 1993, a life cycle analysis showed that 78m tonnes of carbon equivalent were emitted by decomposing landfill sites. The same amount was emitted by the usage of fossil fuels during the rest of the paper cycle.

When you have finished with your digitally printed publication it does not go to landfill, does not decompose, and it does not release any nasty emissions. Once you have finished with your digital print if you really don’t want to file your copy away let us know and we'll delete it ending up in our computer server recycling bin, NOT your household waste."


Dear Sir/Madam

We have just been looking at your 'Final Page'. It is not clear if the 5 million tonnes of paper sent to landfill every year and the 78 million tonnes of carbon [dioxide] equivalents both relate to the same year and both relate to the same country/region.

When moving from the 5 million tonnes of paper sent to landfill to the 78 million of carbon dioxide equivalents emitted you might - in fairness - have mentioned that paper is not the only component of landfill. By not doing so you are leaving open - we have no doubt with absolutely no ulterior motive - the possibility that the less than alert reader will think all these carbon dioxide equivalents are purely down to paper.

However, assuming they both relate to the UK and 1993 [17 years ago! ] it is difficult to see how 5 million tonnes of paper could generate 78 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents.

Read on and we'll show you why.

The carbon content of paper varies from paper to paper but the German Environment Office uses as an average of 428 kg / tonne paper.
That means the 5 million tonnes of paper sent to landfill contain 5 million x 0.428 tonnes of carbon = 2,140,000 tones of carbon. If all of this carbon was released in the form of methane [research from landfill sites suggests that this is highly unlikely i n the extreme] then this carbon would generate 2,140,000 tonnes x 16 [mw of CH4]/12 [aw of C] = 2,853,333 tonnes of methane.

Various conversion factors are used to calculate the carbon dioxide equivalence of methane over a 100 year period to take into account its potency and short lifespan. These range from around 23 or 25 to a recent high of 33. If one takes the highest figure of 33 then the methane emitted represents 94 million tonnes CO2 equivalents. If you take a more widely accepted conversion factor of 25, then the methane emitted represents 71 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents.

So, if your figures all relate to the same year and the same geographical region, for paper to have generated all the CO2 equivalents you state are given off virtually all the paper would have had to decompose into methane. New research into landfill indicates that relatively little paper does in fact decay and that only a small portion may come of as methane, the rest as CO2. It is unlikely in the extreme that all the paper would decay to methane.

If all 5 million tonnes of paper all decomposed into CO2 then the amount given off would be as follows:

0.428 x 5 million x 44 [mw of CO2] / 12 [aw of C] = 7.8 million tonnes CO2, since CO2 has a carbon dioxide equivalent of 1, that means the 5 million tonnes of paper would emit 7.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents. If it decayed into a mix of CO2 and CH4 the figure for carbon dioxide equivalents would be somewhere in between.

In short, for the 5 million tonnes of paper you refer to to produce the 78 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents you refer to is close to chemically impossible . If the figures you quote are correct then they must relate to different years, regions or contributions from substances other than paper. Perhaps - since we are sure you wish to be fair - you might clarify these points on your web site?

Your web site also fails to mention the amount of carbon originating from atmospheric CO2 locked up in paper, fails to mention that much paper does not decompose in landfill at all and seems to try to imply that paper's insatiable thirst will contribute to water wars. We await the great Fenno-Scandinavian Water War with eager anticipation. Much of what you write is either simply wrong or a hopeless conflation of figures drawn from different years, different regions and thrown into a melting pot to produce highly tendentious claims. All of which we are sure you will want to correct now that it has been pointed out to you.

Whilst you are at it, perhaps you might like to quantify exactly how much your servers emit, how much the servers distributing the 'publications' you produce emit and how much the computers used to read your 'publications' emit. Then you might like to tell us how much CO2 your distribution system didn't lock up and how many toxic and/or non-degradable components are used in all the equipment used to produce or read your 'publications'.

Yours sincerely, a less than impressed friend of print and paper.

UPDATE! UPDATE! - This site has now following our challenge to its misinformation.

(C) 2011