Computing/Consumer electronics

The comparative environmental impact of e-mail and paper mail

Several days ago, a friend made a sarcastic comment on Facebook about how much better e-mail is for the environment (in the context of spammers choosing e-mail over paper mail). That made me wonder about the relative impact of paper vs. electronic mail. So, I did what librarians do: I went to Google and started searching. Here’s what I found.

There have been a couple of life cycle studies of paper mail delivery. Pitney-Bowes published a study in 2008 which found that:

…the distribution of letter mail by the Posts generates, on average, about 20 grams of CO2 per letter delivered. In addition, a survey of more than a dozen studies shows that the indicative range of CO2 emissions associated with the upstream mail piece creation process is about 0.9 – 1.3 grams of CO2 per gram of paper. (p. 2).

The U.S. Postal Service commissioned a similar study in 2008, which found:

  • Total energy consumed by the four mail products accounts for 0.6% of national energy consumption, a figure that seems reasonable given the quantities of mail in the U.S. economy, and the energy-intensive nature of paper and board production, printing, and motor vehicle transportation.
  • At the household level, energy and CO2 emissions associated with the entire mail life cycle are roughly comparable to those from operating any of several common home appliances over the same period of time. (p.ES-2)

Both the Pitney-Bowes and USPS studies also looked at other environmental impacts, including waste generation and recycling rates. The Pitney-Bowes report also did a preliminary investigation of electronic communications compared to mail, which found that energy use of information communication technology is about 2% of total U.S. energy use, which is comparable to that of the paper industry. They were unable to calculate a comparative environmental footprint for the two methods.

In 2009, McAfee commissioned a report on the environmental impact of junk e-mail (spam). The results were eye-opening:

  • An estimated worldwide total of 62 trillion spam emails were sent in 2008
  • The average spam email causes emissions equivalent to 0.3 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) per message
  • Globally, annual spam energy use totals 33 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh), or 33 terawatt hours (TWh). That’s equivalent to the electricity used in 2.4 million homes, with the same GHG emissions as 3.1 million passenger cars using two billion U.S. gallons of gasoline. (Key Findings)

There are also several research papers which explore the overall environmental impact of electronic communications, including e-mail and e-commerce. These include:

Although on a per message basis, it appears that e-mail has a lower environmental footprint that of paper mail, the comparative ease and perceived low or no cost of e-mail makes it more likely that people will choose it over paper mail, which requires a stamp and a trip to a mailbox or post office. In aggregate, e-mail has a significant environmental footprint, which may be even higher than that of paper mail.

The bottom line: Although e-mail appears to be a better environmental choice than paper mail because there is no obvious up-front waste stream, the research paints a much more nuanced picture, particularly when the including the environmental impact of electronics manufacturing and data center operation.

Scarcity of Elements in Products Like Smartphones Needs Addressing, Say Scientists

Read the full story from the American Chemical Society.

Many of today’s technological innovations from the iPhone to electric motors for hybrid cars require the use of materials — elements — that are scarce or difficult to obtain. As demand for these devices grows, the problem of dwindling critical element supplies must be addressed. That’s the conclusion of a white paper written by eminent scientists. The product of the 5th Chemical Sciences and Society Summit (CS3), the white paper recommends focusing research on finding alternative materials and new approaches to technology development in order to prevent these elements from disappearing.

The white paper, “The Efficient Use of Elements,” is a topic of discussion at this year’s the 248th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world’s largest scientific society. The meeting features nearly 12,000 reports on new advances in science and other topics. It is being held here through Thursday.

Jennifer Pahlka: What I learned as Uncle Sam’s tech geek

Read the full post at GreenBiz.

The late leadership guru Peter Drucker once wrote, “In any organization, regardless of its mission, the CEO is the link between the Inside, i.e., ‘the organization,’ and the Outside — society, the economy, technology, markets, customers, the media, public opinion.”

Last year, Code for America executive director Jennifer Pahlka took those words to heart and headed to Washington, D.C., for a one-year “fellowship” as U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Her goal: to better understand the public sector agency that the organization’s private-sector technology experts are trying to serve.

While she was there, Pahlka witnessed firsthand the passionate, 20-hour-per-day work of the private-sector technology advisers called in to rescue the ailing Healthcare.gov site. In June, she returned to her Code for America post in San Francisco, Calif., recommitted to her nonprofit organization’s mission of harnessing technology to solve community problems.

5 purposeful ways to tame ‘accidental’ data centers

Read the full story in GreenBiz.

The best-laid plans for green office buildings are meaningless if the occupants ignore them. Remember the flap last August over how much power the Platinum LEED Bank of America tower in New York was using? Suffice it to say, way more than anticipated.

Few things can skew energy usage more insidiously than the energy for running and cooling random computer servers, storage arrays and network gear shoved into closets or conference rooms originally intended for other purposes. Unfortunately, outside of big Fortune 500 companies that can for data center gurus, this practice is apparently pretty common: the Natural Resources Defense Council figures that at least half of U.S. servers are unmanaged, accounting for between 30 percent and 50 percent of all the electricity being used in small and midsize offices.

App aims to broaden the ‘eEcosphere’ for consumers and business

Read the full story at GreenBiz.

Can millennials and social networking really lead us to a sustainable future?

One startup is betting its business model on “yes.” eEcosphere aims to help users discover, adopt and share actionable ideas to build a more sustainable lifestyle — providing personally tailored tips and local resources to improve their everyday decisions. The company, which launched the iOS version of its application last month, targets millennials, is co-led by one and offers a practical solution for the conscious, connected generation searching for a sense of meaningful action.

The objective? To transform the idea of “being sustainable” from a destination into a lens for evaluating one’s current lifestyle, and through which opportunities to make simple yet meaningful behavior changes become apparent — not to mention fun and collaborative. Along the way, it aims to create new opportunities for companies to evolve more personal, valuable relationships with their younger customers.