To Print or not to Print?

Leta Ames '18

Sustainability Columnist

Which is better for the environment; printing out your readings, or viewing them online? The answer, much like most environmental questions, is that it’s complicated. There are many different factors that influence the environmental impact of something and comparing pieces of paper and bytes of data is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. According to student research at Stanford, reading a paper online uses approximately one kilojoule of energy more than producing a piece of paper. So, if you’re reading something multiple times, it’s usually worth it to print out that page in terms of energy. There are other environmental impacts of both paper and computer readings and there are clear differences in preference, because everyone has a different learning style. I’m going to dive into the impacts of both paper and your computer.

When it comes to printing, there’s the actual paper making process, transportation of the paper, and making and maintaining of printers. According to the WWF, the United States is one of the largest consumers of paper products. Conversion of old growth forest to pulp plantations can release stored carbon into the atmosphere and powering the mills that make paper is incredibly energy intensive, leading to greenhouse emissions. Paper production is also very water intensive and pollutants, like bleach needed to whiten paper, can be released into waterways. There are ways for paper to be made sustainably, and using recycled and environmentally certified products is a great place to start.

Photograph courtesey of Food & Nutrition Magazine.

Photograph courtesey of Food & Nutrition Magazine.

During the life of a printer the ink cartridges used are a large waste concern. Many commercially available inks contain toxic chemicals, that can pollute water soil during production and when disposed of in landfill. According to Rhea Handa, a Scripps senior and employee in the IT department, our ink cartridges are sent to a company that recycles them, which greatly reduces their environmental impact. Another impact of printers is during their production and end of life disposal, something that is a huge concern for all consumer electronics. One way to mitigate the environmental impact of electronics is to avoid purchasing new electronics, so take care of the printers in our dorms and make them last.

So, when it comes to your online readings, there’s the energy impact of using a computer, which is included in the energy comparison referenced above; there are also hidden impacts. Most electronics are made in some capacity overseas, releasing emissions when they are shipped to the United States. Additionally, electronics are made with rare earth metals, which like most mining practices have huge environmental costs. According to an investigation done by the Guardian, most of these metals are mined in China and years of limited environmental regulations and high demands for the metals from international companies have put the toxic burden on the people who live near and work in the mines. There has been a push to recycle more of these components, but according to WHO, it is often rural and economically disadvantaged areas around the world take on this recycling in unsafe ways and in turn the hazards that come with it. Before recycling your electronic device, make sure you research where it is going and how it is being processed. As always, it’s better to take care of your products and use them as long as possible before purchasing a new one.

Another hidden cost of reading your articles online is the energy needed to run and cool the servers that manage the data you see when you access a website. According to Wired and The Atlantic, Netflix, Facebook, and other large companies have worked to house their servers in areas where energy is produced by renewables, large amounts of energy that power your favorite websites are powered on the grid where energy is produced by burning coal.

Long story short, both reading hard copy and online have hidden environmental and social costs. Be conscious of your consumption either way. If you’ll be returning to reference multiple times or reading it closely it is likely better to print, just make sure to print on recycled paper, print multiple pages per sheet, and recycle after use. When using a computer, make sure to minimize your computer use, while working and during study breaks, also be conscious of new purchases and make your electronics last as long as possible before disposing of them properly.


“Pulp and Paper | Industries | WWF.” World Wildlife Fund, Accessed 30 Sept. 2017.

Greenbrg, Julia. “Netflix Says Streaming Is Greener Than Reading (or Breathing).” WIRED, 28 May 2015., Accessed 30 Sept. 2017.

Kaiman, Jonathan. “Rare Earth Mining in China: The Bleak Social and Environmental Costs.” The Guardian, 20 Mar. 2014.,

Burrington, Ingrid. “The Environmental Toll of a Netflix Binge.” The Atlantic, Dec. 2015. The Atlantic,

“What Is The Impact Of Printing On The Environment?” Cartridge World. Accessed 30 Sept. 2017.

“WHO | Electronic Waste.” WHO, Accessed 30 Sept. 2017.

Pydipati, Tejo. “Energy Use of Print vs. Electronic Media.” 24 Oct. 2010. Accessed 30 Sept. 2017.

Robinson, Brett H. "E-waste: an assessment of global production and environmental impacts." Science of the total environment408.2 (2009): 183-191.