Many companies continue to encourage (and sometimes force) their customers to switch from paper to electronic communications, using claims that electronic communication is “greener,” “saves trees” or “protects the planet” as justification. One can only conclude that the CEOs of these companies are either:
1) misinformed about the inherent sustainability of print and paper, the rapidly expanding environmental footprint of digital communication, or both,
2) trusting marketing teams who don’t bother to validate environmental claims, or
3) seeking to save costs by ignoring established environmental marketing standards from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, the Competition Bureau of Canada, the UN Environment Programme, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO 14021), the World Federation of Advertisers and others that say marketers should not make broad, unsubstantiated environmental benefit claims like “green” and “environmentally friendly,” and that all environmental claims must be supported by competent and verifiable scientific evidence.
Growth of electronic devices and e-waste
There’s no arguing that the use of electronic devices has exploded over the last decade. According to a 2021 study by the Pew Research Center, the vast majority of Americans (85%) now own smartphones, up from just 35% in 2011. Nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults now own desktop or laptop computers, and roughly half now own tablets. This boom has resulted in many advances that make our lives more efficient, productive and enjoyable. But it has also brought with it serious and increasing environmental, health and economic consequences.
According to the most recent Global E-waste Monitor (GEM), a record 53.6 million metric tons (Mt) of electronic waste was generated in 2019, up 21% in just five years. For perspective, this e-waste weighed as much as 350 cruise ships the size of the Queen Mary 2, enough to form a line 76 miles long. The GEM describes e-waste as discarded products with a battery or plug. Small electronic equipment, screens and monitors, small IT and telecommunication equipment comprised more than half of global e-waste in 2019. The U.S. and Canada collectively generated 7.7 Mt of electronic waste. That’s 46 lbs. per person, and nearly three times the worldwide per capita generation of 16 lbs.
The report also predicted that global e-waste, will reach 74 Mt by 2030, almost a doubling of e-waste in just 16 years. This makes e-waste the world’s fastest-growing waste stream, fueled by higher consumption rates of electric and electronic devices, short device life cycles and few options for repair. Many people now view electronic devices as ultimately disposable, simply discarding them when it’s time for an upgrade. Others may hold on to them, but are unable to find a cost-effective way to repair them.
Little e-waste is recycled
The GEM found that only 17.4% of e-waste was collected and recycled globally in 2019, with only 15% of e-waste in North America recycled. Most e-waste was either dumped or burned rather than being collected for recycling and reuse.
Numerous toxic and hazardous substances are found in electronic equipment and pose severe risk to the environment and human health when not handled in an environmentally sound manner. Recent research cited in the GEM found that unregulated e-waste is associated with increasing numbers of adverse health effects, from birth defects and altered neurodevelopment to DNA damage, adverse cardiovascular and respiratory effects and cancer.
E-waste also represents a huge economic loss. When electronic devices are simply thrown away, high-value, recoverable materials such as iron, copper and gold are thrown away with them. “If we cannot recycle electronic waste, we’re not taking back materials into the loop, which means we have to extract new raw materials,” says Vanessa Forti, the lead author of the GEM. It’s estimated that the value of raw materials in all global e-waste generated in 2019 equaled a staggering $57 billion US, more than the gross domestic product of most countries.
Electronic communication, energy consumption and climate change
The miniaturization of equipment and the “invisibility” of the infrastructures used leads many to underestimate the environmental footprint of digital technology. This phenomenon is reinforced by the widespread availability of services in the cloud, which makes the physical reality of use all the more imperceptible and leads to underestimating the direct environmental impacts of digital technology.
Global tech giant Cisco estimates that by 2023, North America will have 345 million internet users (up from 328 million in 2018), and 5 billion networked devices/connections (up from 3 billion in 2018). The U.S. Department of Energy reports that U.S. data centers consumed an estimated 70 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) in 2014, representing about 1.8% of total U.S. electricity consumption, with estimated 2020 consumption at around 73 billion kWh. This energy consumption does not include the energy required to drill and mine for raw materials, build, power or recharge the devices.
According to The Shift Project, a carbon transition think tank, the energy consumption required for digital technologies is increasing 9% each year, and the share of digital technology in global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions could double to 8% by 2025.
The contrasts between electronic and paper communications are well-defined
The magnitude of the negative impacts resulting from the use of electronic communication should be cause enough for companies to abandon their unverifiable greenwashing claims that going digital is better for the environment, but the comparison with paper-based communication should seal the deal for those that are committed to responsible marketing practices.
Since its inception, Two Sides has been working to end anti-paper greenwashing. For more information about Two Sides’ Anti-greenwash Campaign, click here.
For more facts on paper sustainability topics, click here.
CHICAGO – July 20, 2021 – In an attempt to reduce costs, many banks, utilities, telecoms and other service providers are switching consumers from paper to electronic bills and statements, often without their consent, and some are now charging fees to receive paper statements. Others are urging their customers to switch from paper to digital communication because “it’s better for the environment.” But a recent survey commissioned by Two Sides North America and conducted by international research firm Toluna found that consumers want the freedom to choose how they receive important communications from the companies they do business with, and they are wise to cost cutting efforts disguised as concern for the environment.
The Right to Choose
The Two Sides survey showed that 78% of U.S. consumers believe they should have the right to choose how they receive important communications from their service providers, on paper or electronically, and 67% believe they should not be charged more for choosing a paper bill or statement.
While using the internet can be a quick and convenient way to transact business, companies that default customers to electronic communication put at risk many Americans who do not have broadband access or have difficulty using the internet. Particularly at risk are people in rural areas, older people and those living with handicaps or on low incomes. According to a 2021 study by BroadbandNow, some 42 million Americans do not have broadband internet access.
Companies that force consumers to go paperless also face risks of their own. More than four in 10 consumers (41%) said they would consider switching to an alternate provider if their current one forced them to go paperless.
Digital Communication is Not Always Preferred
The survey showed that 64% of consumers are increasingly concerned that their personal information held electronically is at risk of being hacked, stolen, lost or damaged. Those over age 65 are most concerned (70%), but more than half of 18- to 24-year-olds (52%) have the same worry.
While internet use is practical and convenient for many, electronic communication also comes with undeniable challenges, including issues associated with overuse. The survey revealed that American consumers believe that “switching off” is more important than ever, with more than half (52%) saying they spend too much time on digital devices. The same percentage is concerned that the overuse of electronic devices could be damaging to their health, causing issues such as eye strain, headaches and sleep deprivation.
It’s also important to note that switching from paper to electronic delivery of bills and statements is not really “paperless,” since 64% of consumers say they regularly print out copies of such documents. 53% find paper bills and statements better than electronic bills and statements for recordkeeping.
Which is Better, Print on Paper or Digital Communication?
“The simple answer is that both have important uses and benefits that consumers value,” says Two Sides North America President Kathi Rowzie. “The question should not be which one is better, but which is best suited for each individual’s needs. It’s vitally important that all consumers have the right to choose how they receive important communications from their service providers – free of charge – to assure that those who are unwilling or unable to access the internet are not disadvantaged.”
The Facts About Greenwashing
It has become commonplace for companies to encourage their customers to switch from paper to electronic bills and statements with claims that going paperless is “green” or “helps the environment.” These types of broad, unsubstantiated environmental claims, known as greenwashing, are not only misleading, but also are unacceptable under established environmental marketing standards such as the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Green Guides and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 14021 standard.
“Statements like ‘Go Green, Go Paperless’ are not backed by sound science and fail to recognize the vast and growing negative environmental impacts of electronic communication,” Rowzie says. “These misleading claims may also damage consumers’ perceptions of paper and put at risk the livelihoods of more than 7 million people in the U.S. print, paper and mail sector.”
However, not all U.S. consumers are fooled by corporate greenwashing claims, and the use of such claims may distract from a company’s legitimate environmental initiatives and damage their corporate reputations. The survey showed that nearly six in 10 (57%) consumers said that when a service provider wants to switch them from paper to electronic communication saying it’s “better for the environment,” they know the company is really just trying to cut costs.
Two Sides continues to actively challenge major companies and other large organizations that make misleading environmental claims about paper products. For more information about the Two Sides Anti-Greenwashing Campaign, visit www.twosidesna.org/anti-greenwash-campaign/.
About Two Sides North America, Inc.
Two Sides North America (www.twosidesna.org) is an independent, non-profit organization that promotes the sustainability of print, paper and paper-based packaging, and dispels common environmental misconceptions about paper products. We are part of the Two Sides global network which operates across North America, South America, Europe, Australia and South Africa.
About the survey
The survey queried a representative sample of 1,000 adults aged 18 and older across the United States.
Kathi Rowzie, President
Two Sides North America, Inc.