Newspaper’s Footprint: Environmental toll of all the news that’s fit to print

The environmental impacts of getting a newspaper dropped on your doorstep each morning vastly outweigh those of receiving the same information via a handheld electronic device such as a personal digital assistant (PDA), according to an analysis in the June 1 Environmental Science & Technology.

GREEN SCREEN. Getting a newspaper via PDA emits less carbon dioxide and other pollutants than are produced by printing and delivering the paper version. S. Norcross

To compare the modes of news delivery, Arpad Horvath and Michael W. Toffel of the University of California, Berkeley scrutinized the full range of industrial processes needed to supply a Berkeley resident with the New York Times for a year. That newspaper—with nearly 1.2 million weekday subscribers and 1.7 million on Sundays—has the largest 7-day circulation of any U.S. paper and is available via PDAs over wireless networks, says Horvath.

A year’s worth of the New York Times weighs about 236 kilograms. Manufacturing the newsprint produces about 660 kg of planet-warming carbon dioxide and consumes about 22,700 liters of water. Printing the paper generates about 37 kg of CO2, and delivering it from the local printing plant and then carrying half of it to a landfill—the rest typically gets recycled—adds another 5 kg of the greenhouse gas.

Because 2.6 people read each printed issue, on average, Horvath calculates that each New York Times reader in Berkeley is responsible for adding about 270 kg of CO2 to the atmosphere each year. If the paper were printed on totally recycled newsprint, annual CO2 emissions would drop to 158 kg. Assuming current recycling rates, total emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulfur oxides (SOx), which contribute to smog and acid rain, are about 0.9 kg and 1.4 kg per reader per year, respectively.

Manufacturing a PDA and its batteries takes about 22 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy, says Horvath. Assuming that each PDA lasts 3 years, that’s about 7.3 kWh per year. Uploading the New York Times to a PDA consumes about 6.3 kWh annually, and charging the device’s batteries consumes about 3.1 kWh.

When the researchers included the energy needed to manufacture the small fraction of the telecommunications infrastructure needed to upload the New York Times, annual energy consumption totaled about 24.7 kWh per reader. In California, that energy usage produces only 5 kg of CO2 and 4 grams each of SOx and NOx. Annual water consumption associated with reading the Times on a PDA ranges between 123 and 340 liters, depending on whether the reader uploads the newspaper through a computer or directly to the PDA through a wireless Internet link.

“Paper is a very resource-intensive product,” says Brad Allenby, a civil and environmental engineer at Arizona State University in Tempe. Nevertheless, he concedes, people typically don’t consider environmental consequences when they choose how they’ll read a newspaper.

Even with the new analysis, Allenby adds, “I don’t think you’ll find many people curling up with their PDAs on Sunday mornings.”

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