Since roughly a year ago, we have reckoned with an increase in disposable masks and personal protective equipment, take-out containers and other single-use plastics. But with that, we have also seen a decrease in paper waste in schools and travel emissions.
These temporary pandemic changes are by no means a sufficient, long-lasting substitute for conscious and environmentally friendly habits. But perhaps the pandemic is the extra boost our society needed to abandon paper and go digital.
The question is: Should we?
At first glance, going digital seems considerably more eco-friendly than its traditional alternatives. However, electronic waste — such as computers and batteries, which may have toxic chemicals and effects on the environment — may never decompose, or at least take millions of years to do so.
In fact, they are virtually built to last forever.
That means that if they end up in landfills instead of being recycled, repurposed or properly disposed of, they can have lasting, detrimental impacts on surrounding ecosystems and communities.
Alarmingly, the global energy suck from digital devices is outpacing the consumption of global electricity, not even accounting for the energy used to manufacture computers, smartphones and other electronic devices.
Still, electronics seem to be a recognized sustainable alternative. The annual sector emissions for information technology is lower than that of paper, and reading e-books has been proven to be environmentally friendlier than paperbacks.
But because of the materials and e-waste involved, digital does not always mean less wasteful, even if reducing paper waste is a positive.
Furthermore, digital reliance comes with added non-environmental problems. The pre-existing digital divide that came with unequal access to resources, infrastructure, Wi-Fi and financial support was only exacerbated by the move to remote learning and working. More than half of the parents of low-income households stated their children may come across digital barriers with school, according to Pew Research Center.
Going digital for educational purposes can also be developmentally and physically harmful and could even stunt student learning. For especially young children and preschoolers, excessive screen time hinders their growth, which shouldn’t be all that surprising, considering how blue light can throw off anyone’s melatonin production and strain their eyes.
Reading comprehension is also improved by the use of paper instead of screens. And studies have shown too much remote instruction can have detrimental effects on learning and language skills.
For those with learning disabilities, who are not native English speakers or who simply don’t learn well through a screen, the impact of going digital may be even more extensive.
For schools, sustainability should not come at the expense of education.
Reducing paper waste should not be as pressing of an issue. It’s a well-populated myth that paper is the most harmful substance to the environment, when in fact it’s the most recycled recyclable in North America, and the industry follows firm environmental standards created by third-parties such as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative and Forest Stewardship Council.
Paper wastage has a relatively low environmental footprint compared to other areas of energy or waste. Food waste, which has been relegated to our homes and the restaurants we support rather than local public schools over the past year, is arguably more important to prioritize right now than paper waste. Institutions that have the resources to implement new procedures or programs have the unique opportunity to do so as part of their reopening.
It’s also unlikely the pandemic will usher in any revolutionary environmental change, or that this remote-learning, uber-digital situation will be permanent. However, we still integrate technology into our lives more and more each day, so it isn’t unreasonable to say we may abandon paper in the near future. It isn’t so much whether we should, but when and under what conditions we’ll make a nearly complete transition to digital.
The pandemic has given us — rather, forced onto us — a taste of that future. It comes bittersweet unto our ill-prepared infrastructures. This realization should only ignite a fire in each of us to fight for and build better systems so we will be prepared the next time we embrace the virtual frontier or integrate a new, sustainable practice into our everyday routines.
As with all conversations surrounding climate change and environmentalism, we must be as careful and equitable as possible if we require electronic devices and widespread internet access. The issue of sustainability can never be removed from our health, education, economy, pre-existing disparity and other aspects of society, so we have to work to ensure the solution’s social impact is also minimized.