Morgan Stanley Research has put out a big report on tablets, looking at their role in the computer market. But the folks at All Things D noticed an interesting sidebar buried in the report: the growing popularity of tablets could lead to a decline in paper use.
Here’s the idea: you don’t have to print things out as often if you can pull them up in an instant on a paper-sized portable display. So if you have an iPad, you’re less likely to print that PowerPoint presentation you were going to take to your next meeting, or your grocery shopping list. And as eBooks and printed newspapers become more popular thanks to dedicated readers and apps for smartphones and tablets, there’s less demand for commercial printing as well.
All in all, Morgan Stanley predicts printer supply sales to decline as much as 2 percent this year, and between 2 and 5 percent next year. So that’s good news if you’re a tree… but is it a net gain or loss for the environment?
I’m not even going to pretend to be able to do the math on my own here, but while tablet proliferation could reduce the number of trees chopped down for paper, it could also lead to fewer trees being planted. But the bigger question is whether any environmental benefit is offset by extraction and production of metal, plastic and glass that goes into portable electronic devices. And then there’s the fossil fuels that are burned to generate the electricity to charge your battery over and over and over again.
Anecdotally, I used to print out driving directions all the time before I got a smartphone which I could either use for turn-by-turn navigation, or to display a saved list of directions. But while my phone doesn’t use a ton of electricity, I can’t help but wonder if its impact on the environment is greater than the few pages of printed paper it saves each month.