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.

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9 replies on “Tablet proliferation could save trees… does that make them good for the environment?”

  1. Anyone thought of hemp paper, it was used years ago and is eco friendly and 100% recyclable, hemp is a wonder product that will save the world.

  2. It’s not like people will NOT buy tablets but instead will only print. Tablets and smart phones do many functions, not all are direct 1:1 replacements of print.

    So the real question is: When you eventually buy an iPad and/or smart phone, will you use it supplant a portion what you used to print? And does this additional use actually save energy/resources?

    I think the answer will be a resounding yes because the manufacturing of paper is very energy intensive, even for recycled paper. I’ve seen several sources that estimate anywhere from 17 to 90 watt-hours of energy to manufacture a single letter sized sheet of paper. Here’s one source that quotes Xerox on this:

    Even taking the lowest number for recycled paper: 17 watt-hours. That’s 17 watts for one hour. An iPad uses much less than this as it has a 25 watt-hour battery and I’m able to read several hours on my iPad on a partial charge, which can be hundreds of pages. 100 pages * 17 watt hours is 1700 watt hours of energy.

    So once an iPad is purchased for the myrid of other uses, the incremental savings in usage to replace print is clearly a win for the environment.

    Finally, the efficiency of displays is improving. I’ve read several papers describing evolutionary advancements to LCD displays that should make them 2-3x more energy efficient in the next 5 years, so the gap will simply widen.

  3. The answer to this argument is plain and simple. Greener and more efficient computing will pay off dividends in being better for the environment in the long run.

    But the proposed question is also misleading. If we were to hold a serious conversation about what is actually “bad” for the environment — tablets, energy-efficient computers, netbooks, smartphones, etc. etc. would barely even make it into the discussion.

    The majority of the damage being done to the environment stems from the fact that there are extreme profits being gained off of our unecessary and systemic waste!

    For all the hundreds of dollars in gasoline wasted monthly to compute to work in a heavy fuel-inefficient car, for example, someone is profiting (because you have to buy the gas from someone).

    For every package, can of pop, box of cookies, McDonalds wrapper, etc. etc. that you buy and throw into the garbage can — it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to them if you throw it into the landfill because they profited off of selling the ‘junk’ packaging to you! The price of the wrapper was oh-so-happily ‘included’ in the purchase.

    And you paid for it!

    And someone profited.

    My only point is that, to have a serious conversation about what is good or bad for the environment, you should at least start with what is actually causing most of the problems on the planet! And that is the insane profits being made off unnecessary consumer waste!

    Tablets aren’t the problem! In the end, they will play a greater role in reducing environmental damage than not. Let’s talk about that instead of having a micro-discussion on trees!

    Please have a serious discussion about the problem!

  4. Well. Two people said it before me. The net environmental impact is buying iPads vs paper might be bigger.

  5. is it possible that ipad users said they plan on printing a whole lot less because most printers don’t support ipad wireless printing?

  6. As Jonathan said. Also the ‘killing trees’ argument falls kind of flat if you’re looking at net environmental impact. It’s not like paper is made from old growth forest… It’s primarily made from wood pulp harvested from commercial tree farms who grow a specific volume specifically for lumber and paper use…

    It’s not like the ninteenth and early twentieth century any more. We aren’t just harvesting trees wherever they stand…

    And lets face it, electronic gadgets are NOT good for the enviornment, however addicted we are to them. They cost way too much energy to make, they are seldom recycled. They require active and dangerous polution to create, and dispose of…

    So yeah, we net a few saved trees, and make the world a little worse for the people who will come after us in the process.

    The sad part is, I know all this, and I still got a new laptop, my wife a new phone, and am planning on getting a tablet… Oh well.

    1. Yeah, ideally one solution would be to insist on modular laptops, tablets and other devices that are easier to upgrade. If your desktop PC starts to feel outdated or a part breaks, it’s relatively easy to replace the hard drive, RAM, motherboard, or CPU without sending the whole thing to the scrap heap.

      Unfortunately it’s currently much harder to do the same thing with mobile electronics, and as we move away from laptops (which at least have replaceable RAM and hard drives), it’s going to get even tougher. Many phones and tablets don’t even have user replaceable batteries, let alone motherboards or processors.

      Of course, there’s little incentive for device manufacturers to make it easier for users to upgrade or fix the items they purchase. They’d much rather sell you a shiny new widget every year.

  7. Intuitively, I tend to agree that the relatively large amount of energy and resources required for the production of these devices far outweighs the potentially positive environmental impact of reduced printing. Printing itself isn’t even necessarily a bad thing, as long as paper is being used in a sustainable manner. This tablet dilemma mirrors to a degree the debate over more fuel-efficient cars like hybrid and electric vehicles. Yes, trading in your old clunker for a new Prius will drastically cut your emissions from driving immediately, but the energy and resources required to build the new vehicle means that the best course of action in terms of net impact on the environment is simply driving your old car until it dies and only then buying a new, fuel-efficient car. Similarly, the most environmentally friendly course of action with respect to tablets is probably to not buy one. This is easier said than done, of course, especially when one is addicted to the gadgets like I am.

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