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If you’ve grown tired of answering the question, “paper or plastic?” you can now consider another nagging environmental question when choosing your news source: “Online or print?”

Environmental critics have decried “dead-tree media” for decades, saying that print publications rely on clear-cutting forests, energy produced to run paper mills, and gasoline used to deliver publications to each doorstep.While print publishers have started to look at recycled paper content and other environmentally friendly practices, the web remains a more eco-friendly choice for information consumers who care about their carbon footprint.

And it’s not just about getting news on the web; people are now getting information on smartphones and other wireless devices, too. In their unpublished research paper, “The Impact of Environmental Issues and Information Technology on the Future of Paper Industry,” Lauri Hetemaki and Majella Clarke of the Finnish Forest Research Institute explain how digital technology could eventually substitute for print:

One of the main trends in the publishing business has recently been the proliferation of media and venues for delivering content. Three interconnected drivers are likely to have an important impact on this process: bandwidth affordability, wireless communication, and the convergence of digital equipment. The rapid increase of broadband services and their declining real prices result in increasing usage of computer-based equipment for the delivery and consumption of media. Wireless communication allows people to break free from the tether of the network, and significantly increases the portability of digital media platforms. The convergence of technologies implies that single-function analog devices are giving way to multi-function digital devices.

The paper goes on to mention the environmental problems of technology and electronics hardware, often becoming obsolete quickly and containing toxic chemicals. Still, the amount of energy and environmental impact of one session on a computer pales in comparison to the impact of reading a printed newspaper or magazine. Frank Locantore is director of the Magazine Paper Project at the non-profit Co-op America. The aim of the project is to help magazines start using more recycled paper content.

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Frank Locantore

“With the web we’re talking about energy use more than anything else,” he said. “When you talk about magazines and newspapers, you’re talking about forests, as well as energy and water use and even social conflict from where the forest fiber is being sourced. I can’t imagine magazine readership and production having less impact than the web.”

While that might be true in general, web and computer usage does have its environmental impact with the electricity and power used for server farms. And conversely, print publishers have started to pay attention to environmental concerns by pushing recycling programs as well as using recycled fiber in their publications.

Mixed Record for Newspapers

Recycling newspapers has become an ingrained habit for Americans over the past couple decades. Publishers have increased their use of recycled paper in newspapers and have become more cognizant of the impact of discarded newspapers on the local communities they serve.

In two separate investigative reports, specific newspapers detailed the environmental impact they were having. The Sacramento Bee’s State of Denial report from 2003 includes a section detailing how California forests had been preserved but newspaper publishers were taking paper stripped from the Canadian boreal forests. And the Montreal Gazette literally gave itself a Green Report Card, figuring its own ecological footprint with an in-depth package. The Gazette noted that it had taken some environmentally friendly steps by using 20% recycled paper content in its newspapers, but that the dream of a paperless office was far from coming true.

Tyson Miller, director of the Green Press Initiative, has helped book publishers switch to recycled paper, and is planning to start doing the same thing to the newspaper industry. He told me there were already a lot of good signs that newspapers were ahead of books and magazines — but there was still a long way to go.

“Newsprint consumption is 9.2 million tons per year, and the average amount of that which is recycled material is 32%, so about 6 million tons of virgin fiber is used to make U.S. newsprint per year,” he said. “That’s more virgin fiber than the books, magazine and catalog business combined. So even though they use a lot more recycled content, and print circulation is dropping, the industry as a whole uses a lot of paper. The good news is that the industry has a fairly high recycled fiber use rate.”

The Newspaper Association of America found that 69% of newspapers in the U.S. were recovered and recycled in 2005, up from about 57% in 1995. The NAA has been touting digital distribution of news articles and the rise of newspaper website readership for the past few years, though it hasn’t made it an environmental issue. David Johnson, administrator of ScrippsNews.com, wrote an Earth Day-related blog post detailing the eco-friendly steps the newspaper industry was taking. He told me newspapers had lowered the amount of newsprint used in each paper — though that was more for cost-cutting than anything else.

“I know at Scripps [environmental issues are] a big deal,” Johnson said. “I just got out of a newspaper technology directors meeting a couple weeks ago, and we’re looking for every way we can to increase profit and one of those ways is recycling. We’re recycling everything that we’re not distributing…There are a few boutique presses here in DC that say they only do recycled newsprint and that’s their marketing advantage. The newspapers will find that as a marketable peg they can get onto as eco-friendly.”

When I was visiting London last year, I was amazed at all the discarded free Metro newspapers in the subway trains. The trend toward free commuter newspapers is not one that has captured the hearts of environmentalists. Quite the contrary. London-based photographer Justin Canning started the website Project Freesheet to ask people to photograph the waste created by free newspapers, and to pressure publishers to promote recycling and pay for the garbage they are creating.

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Justin Canning

“Will people change the way they read because they have concerns for the environment?” Canning said via email. “I’m not sure because I don’t think people are yet 100% comfortable about sitting in front of screens to read for hours. Papers and books still offer the ability to ‘disappear’ (into the garden, on the beach, on the train, etc.) and read for amounts of time, without the need to worry about support for your device…So I think the onus still rests on the producers of printed matter to take responsibility for their product and produce it in a way that is positive for our environment.”

Magazines Still Lagging

The magazine industry has been slower to embrace recycled paper in their publications, citing a higher cost and lower quality of the paper. As paper production changes and recycling becomes more widespread, those arguments will start to lose their strength — especially if readers start asking for more eco-friendly publications.

After the Al Gore documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” magazine publishers are starting to pay more attention to environmental issues, at least in their editorial outlook. The Week magazine decided to do one online-only issue with a green theme around Earth Day this year. Elle and Vanity Fair both had special green issues as well, and WashingtonPost.Newsweek.Interactive launched the online-only enviro-women’s pub, Sprig.

Yet, there’s a hint of hypocrisy in some of these nods toward the green revolution. Vanity Fair uses absolutely no recycled paper in its issues, and Elle has only used recycled paper in its two green issues over the past couple years.

“It drives me batty,” said Frank Locantore of the Magazine Paper Project. “It’s like a Ford Escalade SUV with a ‘Stop Global Warming’ bumper sticker. Vanity Fair and Elle make such a hullabaloo with their Green Issue, and the most impactful thing that they could do for the environment is to switch to recycled paper, and Shape [magazine] does that for every issue.”

Locantore says that only about 100 magazines out of 18,000 titles in print use some recycled paper content or use responsibly sourced virgin fiber. (His group includes a list of these titles on a special Heroes page.) He is starting to see more interest from publishers to use recycled paper, and is hoping to convince six high-profile magazines to set examples by using some recycled paper content in their publications. He ticks off the enivoronmental benefits if magazines would switch from 0% recycled content in their publications to 30% recycled: 16% less solid waste; 10% less waste water; 13% less greenhouse gases; and 10% less total energy expended in production.

There are a lot of other areas that magazines could help out the environment beyond just using recycled stock paper. Samir Mr. Magazine Husni, chair of the journalism department at the University of Mississippi, notes that publishers could do a much better job of printing up the right number of copies instead of overshooting.

“The newspaper and magazine industry must find ways to trim the waste, and that’s why they have to be more clever about delivering relevant information to relevant audiences,” he said. “We can’t afford to have publishers who say, ‘I’m going to print 1 million copies and will see who’s going to buy them.’ And we know that only 3 out of 10 copies will be sold, and 700,000 will go to waste. We have to be more laser-targeted in our publishing instead of a shotgun approach. The technology will help us laser target our publishing, our printing.”

E-Ink to the Rescue?

Despite the obvious ecological problems with ink on paper, the Internet isn’t exactly solar-powered and eats up plenty of energy. An Ask.com executive told Wired Magazine last fall= that the five leading search engines have about 2 million servers for a total of 600 megawatts of power consumption. When you add in hard drive power and air conditioning, the total energy usage for search engines hits 5 gigawatts — enough to power Las Vegas on a hot day, according to the article.

Journalist/blogger Nicholas Carr noted that 4,000 servers power the virtual world Second Life, and that there are an average of 10,000 to 15,000 avatars living there. He wanted to know if Second Life citizens ended up using up more energy than real-life people and found that the average avatar uses up 1,752 kilowatt hours per year — about the same amount used by the average Brazilian. “Avatars aren’t quite as intangible as they seem,” he concluded. “They don’t have bodies, but they do leave footprints.”

So perhaps a more perfect ecological solution for getting news and information would be on low- or solar-powered e-readers that were cheap, flexible and reusable.

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Sony Reader with E-Ink

“I think with the increased use of handheld electronic devices, the consumption of traditional printed media is already being affected,” Project Freesheet’s Canning said. “But we’ll always have our favorites that we will want to buy hard copies of, so the book/magazine/paper format will not fall out of demand for a long time — or until someone invents a device that can open up to the size of a magazine and fold down to the size of your present mobile phone. That is why we have to encourage the publishing industry to look at the products they produce and to ask them if they can really justify polluting the planet for the next 50 years with a product that is showing itself to be extremely bad news for the environment.”

The researchers from the Finnish Forest Research Institute believe that e-readers could eventually become a real substitute for printed material — unlike the desktop computer, which doesn’t lend itself to lengthy readings.

“When consumers see that paper-like displays or smart paper are as easy to use and as good quality as print media, and that they come at mass-market prices, then the environmental perspective (green purchasing) becomes much more relevant,” they write. “The further we look to the future, the more likely the relationship between print and digital media is to evolve from that of a complementary preference, to that of substitute…The more consumers accept electronic media as a substitute for printed media, the easier it is for politicians and environmental authorities to regulate media that are environmentally more damaging.”

For more reading on the environmental impact of newspapers, magazines and online media, check out these articles, blog posts and websites:

What is the media’s carbon footprint, in print and online? by Martin Stabe

Recycling Paper & Glass from the Energy Information Administration

Environmental Paper Advice & Views blog by Gerard Gleason

Weighing the Web by Russell Seitz

State of Denial — Scarring the Boreal by Tom Knudson of the Sacramento Bee

Green Report Card for the Montreal Gazette newspaper

Vanity Un-Fair? Mag Drops Plan to Use Recycled Content at Muckraked

What’s worse? Dead trees or energy-hungry computers? by Martin Stabe

What a load of rubbish from the Ecologist

Will paper kill the papers? by Jeff Jarvis

Read a newspaper and plant a tree by Ron Dembo of Zerofootprint

Environmental Defense’s Paper Calculator

What do you think? Have you ever considered the environmental impact of reading a newspaper, magazine or online news site? What action would you take to try to change your own impact, if any? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo of newspaper pile by Locator.