The Green Debate

The Environmental Impacts of Paper and Electronic Communications Introduction

Do paper and mail destroy forests? Is the letter mail we throw away daily a major contributor to landfills? Does the carbon footprint of mail represent a major opportunity for reducing total emissions? I am sure you have asked yourself these questions for mail. But my guess is that you have not spent time on the same critical questions about your electronic communications.

Computers, mobile phones and PDAs almost never leave our hands nowadays. We live in an “always tethered” world, with the Internet in the hand or in the pocket. Should we take all these devices for granted? Do we just give them an automatic free pass and label them as carbon free and “obviously greener” than paper without further thought?

We started asking ourselves these questions over a year ago. Soon we began to see a few press articles raising the issue publicly. For example, a leading magazine headline asked if the “Internet was destroying our planet”.

Mail and the Environment

Let us first take the impact of mail. To our knowledge, a comprehensive, universally accepted set of impact measures for mail does not yet exist.  Yet a public opinion survey published in the US by DMNews showed a widespread misunderstanding of the true impact of mail. As a result, my former team at Pitney Bowes decided to conduct a study to develop a baseline for the environmental impact of mail.

Take trees. The public thinks that paper destroys forests. But the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that forest areas are growing in many countries due to reforestation efforts driven by paper consumption. The real dangers to forests are from using wood for fuel, the expansion of farming and cattle ranching into virgin forests, and global urban growth that brings us more roads and buildings. Why? Because these land clearing operations do not practice reforestation. Were it not for forests managed as a renewable resource for paper production we would now have fewer trees than we had decades ago.

What about waste? Are we clogging our landfills with mail as everyone seems to think?  As it turns out, letter mail makes up only 2% of US landfill according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Furthermore, 36% of direct mail is recycled in the US, compared to 21% for glass, 13% for consumer electronics and 6% for plastics.

A recent book estimates that the waste from electronic communications devices is 5 to 7 million tons per year compared with 3.7 million tons for mail. What’s more, while paper is ultimately biodegradable or can be burned to produce energy in well managed landfills, the glass screen of a discarded electronic device will sit in the environment for one million years.

Mail and Carbon Emissions

What about carbon emissions? To make the paper for a 20g letter, print the mail piece and tender it to the postal operator generates 22g of CO2. Once inside the post and through to final delivery, there are additional CO2 emissions of 20-25g per letter. Why do we give a range? Clearly, not all postal systems are the same. Some use more customer transportation and mailer preparation up front, others use more fuel efficient vehicles, and yet others benefit from electricity produced by a greater share of renewable resources. But, all told, the CO2 from letter mail is about 0.1% of total US emissions. Or you can look at it this way: the total per capita carbon footprint in the US is 20 metric tons; of this, mail is just 25kg.

If these numbers are still a little hard to comprehend, let us place the postal system in perspective. Using our refrigerator at home for one year, washing and drying our clothes year round, or flying just once from Boston to New York, produce the same CO2 emissions as processing and delivering nearly 5,000 letters. That is about nine times the mail received by the average person in the US in one year.

Can we improve on the environmental impacts of mail? Absolutely! The industry must get together and share best practices to reduce energy and fuel use and to increase mail recycling.

Are Electronic Communications Free of Environmental Impact?

When we began our research, a colleague asserted that using electronic communications was nearly free of environmental impact. He argued that the electronic communications network is fully in place, so when we finish composing the email message, we just push a button. How much energy can possibly be used by just pushing the button? That is the carbon footprint of an email, he concluded.

We saw merit in his argument, but we also sensed problems. Something gnawed at us. We couldn’t quite put a finger on it until I interviewed an executive who was familiar with the work of a prestigious research institute in Europe that had compared the carbon footprint of electronic and paper messages. He told me that the electronic service providers had used the same argument as our colleague. To which a postal expert replied that the post also has a complete network ready and in place, with all its sorting facilities, transportation and delivery resources. Go ahead, he urged, add one more letter and I will show you that the additional environmental impact is negligible.

To be sure, the methodology chosen to compute an environmental impact will be debated by economists and environmental scientists for some time. Do we use marginal, variable or average use of energy? How do we allocate the fixed impacts of a network to an individual message?

A social argument for not using marginal impacts is that we probably would never do anything for our planet. Would we turn down the thermostat one degree? Or avoid a short car trip and instead walk? Would we close the refrigerator door for a few seconds instead of leaving it open unnecessarily? Every marginal use is such an insignificant contributor to the total impact that we would likely be paralyzed into inaction.

While researchers and policy makers continue to think all this through, we in the communications industry want to get a handle on a few comparisons today.

The CO2 Impact of Electronic Communications

Since we have given you the total and the average CO2 emissions for mail, allow us to do the same for electronic communications. Fortunately, we can begin with landmark research at Lawrence Berkeley Labs and the EPA on the power used by the Internet infrastructure. The research reaches three widely-accepted conclusions: Information Technology (IT) accounts for about 2% of US energy consumption; the power used by the Internet infrastructure is about 70bn KWh per year; and the network of Internet servers has been doubling every five years.

To the 70bn KWh needed to power the Internet we must add the energy used by our personal computers. After reviewing several studies and conducting sample surveys we estimated that all PCs in the US consume an additional 78bn KWh per year. So, all told, computers and the Internet burn some 148bn KWh of energy annually, which amounts in the US to 84m tons of CO2, or ten times the carbon footprint of all US letter mail.

Clearly, not all computer use is for email. When we allocate this total energy use to each email that reaches our computers we end up with about 7g of CO2 per email. Not surprisingly, then, an email cannot be considered to be free of carbon footprint if we use an average allocation method as we did for letters. Further, when we count all the emails that reach us, we conclude that email generates over 3.5 times the CO2 attributable to all letter mail.

More specifically, on a per capita basis, daily email use accounts for 246g of CO2 and Internet surfing for another 225g per day in the US, compared to total letter volume which accounts for 67g.

Policy Implications for Electronic Service Providers

We conclude that we can no longer consider that email and the Internet are free of environmental impact. More importantly, electronic communications represent a huge opportunity for carbon reduction that should not be missed.

Fortunately, computer manufacturers, software companies and mobile set producers have taken notice and are coalescing around worthwhile initiatives. One such effort is the Green Grid initiative, which aims to reduce power consumption and make units more recyclable. More such efforts are needed.

Let us remember, however, that just because a unit is made to be recyclable by a manufacturer does not mean that it gets recycled. If it has a power saving mode, it does not mean the users will indeed use the feature to conserve energy. In the end, each of us has to do our part to reduce our electronic impact on the environment.

Relevant Directory Listings

Listing image


Focus on the user experience SwipBox is focused on creating the world’s best user experience for delivering and picking up parcels using parcel lockers. Through a combination of intuitive network management software and hassle-free, app-operated parcel lockers, SwipBox delivers maximum convenience to logistics providers, retailers […]

Find out more

Other Directory Listings




P&P Poll


As a consumer, how did the number of online purchases you made and the value of these compare between the 2022 peak period vs 2021?

Thank you for voting
You have already voted on this poll!
Please select an option!

MER Magazine

The Mail & Express Review (MER) Magazine is our quarterly print publication. Packed with original content and thought-provoking features, MER is a must-read for those who want the inside track on the industry.


News Archive

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This