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Paper and Electronic Communications – Two Sides of the Same Coin?

Posted by LeAndra Spicer on March 27, 2013

There are two sides to every story. This is precisely the point the aptly named non-profit organization Two Sides set out to make when it challenged the Paperless2013 campaign. The initiative, supported by big names like Google and Fujitsu, encouraged consumers to make the switch from paper to electronic communication this year.

In response, Two Sides published an open letter challenging Google Chairman Eric Schmidt to reexamine the one-sided view that using paper to conduct business was better for the environment. Unlike the veiled “better for the environment” claims made by Paperless2013, Two Sides provided the following, along with other, fact-based arguments in defense of paper.

  • Data centers used to power electronic communications can waste up to 90 percent of the electricity they consume and are regularly found in violation of clean air regulations; Google’s data centers consume nearly 300 million watts.
  • The volume of trees grown on United States forestland has increased 49 percent over the last 50 years.
  • When referenced more than once, documents printed on paper are less likely to impact the environment than repeatedly accessing them electronically.

By mid-March, Paperless2103 had removed images of trees from its webpage and social media sites and changed its slogan from “Save money. Save time. Save trees” to “Take the paper out of paperwork.” This successful outcome is just one example of the particular effectiveness Two Sides has had, in their own words, “challenging and correcting misleading environmental claims related to print and paper.” The organization has identified 47 “leading” companies have encouraged customers to use electronic services through the use of unfounded environmental claims.

Unlike the companies that support the Paperless 2013 campaign, each of which markets a digital product to fill the void left by paperless communication, Two Sides makes no secret of its agenda to promote the use of sustainable print and paper products. The organization appears to have realized success by acknowledging electronic and paper-based communication can coexist in the modern world, and initiating and encouraging an open dialogue with companies to bridge this gap.

Two Sides President and Chief Operating Officer Phil Riebel has stated, “Paper comes from a renewable resource – trees grown in responsibly managed forests – and it’s recycled more than any other commodity, including plastics, metals and glass. The continuing demand for sustainably sourced paper gives U.S. landowners and families a financial incentive to continue managing their lands responsibly and keep them forested rather than selling them for development or other non-forest uses. Thanks in great part to the sustainable forestry practices advanced by the paper and forest products industry, the volume of growing trees in U.S. forests have increased nearly 50 percent over the last half century.”

Legislators are getting involved in the support of paper as well.  The federal government has made a concerted effort to replace paper documents with digital communications in recent years. One example is the United States Treasury Department’s decision to do away with paper savings bonds, requiring buyers purchase electronic bonds online.

In response to this and other initiatives to eliminate items such as paper-based tax forms and Social Security checks, Representatives Sean Duffy (R-WI) and Mike Michaud (D-ME) introduced H.Res. 97 to preserve the availability of paper-based communications. The resolution would require the federal government default to paper forms unless a tax payer or check recipient opts in to receive digital communications.

The resolution points to striking statistics about the necessity of paper-based communications to many American households. It points to data that shows:

  • More than one-third of households lack broadband access.
  • Forty-seven percent of citizens age 65 and older do not use the Internet or e-mail.
  • Elderly citizens tend to be unfamiliar with or feel uneasy using electronic communications and are especially susceptible to digital fraud such as identity theft.
  • Surveys conducted by major polling organizations have confirmed the majority of citizens would like to continue to receive paper-based information, products, and services.

Furthermore, forcing electronic communications onto citizens may make for a paperless government, but it does not necessarily equate to a paperless home. A survey and other research conducted by Two Sides found over half of individuals who receive e-bills print at least some of those documents, and nearly three-quarters of the population prefer to read from a paper rather than a computer screen. The resolution is presently referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

There is no question electronic communications have a place in modern society. Nevertheless, the uses of digital and print media are by no means mutually exclusive. Suggesting to consumers that electronic communications are in some way environmentally friendly because they do not rely on paper – a renewable resource provided by a responsibly managed forest – is simply not accurate.  When environmental pros and cons are considered in balance, paper offers a sustainable means of communication.

Topics: forest industry news