Is going digital really more environmentally sustainable than using paper?

Kathi Rowzie, President of Two Sides North America, makes the sustainability case for paper.


Kathi Rowzie, President of Two Sides North America, makes the sustainability case for paper.

OPI readers were recently warned that there is a “code red for humanity” due to human-caused climate change, and that one response to this legitimate threat to the future of humankind is… use less paper.

There are those who want us to believe that we should toss overboard the only form of communication rooted in a truly circular paper industry – one that relies on biobased energy, an infinitely renewable resource and some of the highest recycling rates – in favour of more electronic communication. The latter is rooted in an industry that scours the planet for finite rare earths and other diminishing resources, relies almost exclusively on fossil fuels to meet its increasingly greedy demands for energy, and features embarrassing recycling rates.

The figures don’t lie. It’s estimated that North America will have five billion networked devices in 2023, up 40% from 2018. These electronic devices, and the growing number of server farms that support them, are made with non-renewable raw materials (iron, copper, rare earths, petroleum for plastics, etc) that require environmentally invasive mining and drilling for extraction and processing.

Going digital – manufacturing and operating electronic devices and the massive server farms that support them – requires huge amounts of electricity, which today is generated mostly by fossil fuels. This, in turn, results in greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

The energy consumption required for digital technologies is increasing by an estimated 9% each year. Depending on the level of energy efficiency achieved, the ICT sector could use as much as 51% of global electricity in 2030 and contribute up to 23% of globally released greenhouse gas emissions.

Concerns have been expressed about the chemicals and water used in the production of paper, but data centres consume immense amounts of water. For example, Google’s global data centres alone consumed 4.3 billion gallons (16.2 billion litres) of water in 2021, more than 78% of the total water withdrawn from various sources. As for chemicals, more digitisation means more electronic devices and servers with more bromines, phthalates and heavy metals. 

And finally, the US and Canada generate 7.7 million tonnes of e-waste annually, but only 15% of this gets recycled – the rest is landfilled, burned or dumped. As levels of e-waste increase, so does improper and unsafe treatment and disposal, posing significant threats to the environment and human health.

On the other hand, paper is, in fact, one of the few products on earth that already has an environmentally sustainable, circular life cycle. It’s made from an infinitely renewable natural resource – trees – that are purpose-grown, harvested and regrown in sustainably managed forests. It’s manufactured using mostly renewable bioenergy in a process that uses a great deal of water, but – in reality – consumes very little of it. And more than two-thirds of paper in the US is recycled.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and other credible environmental organisations specifically state that sustainably harvesting trees to make products that benefit society, including paper, is not considered deforestation because the trees will grow back. According to the US Forest Service (USFS), the nation’s forests grow approximately two times more tree volume than is harvested each year. In its most recent Global Forest Resources Assessment, the FAO reported that net forest area in the US increased by approximately 18 million acres over the past 30 years. That’s an area equivalent to 1,200 NFL football fields every day.

And far beyond simply replanting trees, the sustainable forestry practices and forest management certification systems advocated by the paper industry are designed to protect the entire forest ecosystem, from wildlife and habitat to water and soil quality. Sustainable forestry yields benefits for the climate as well. In addition to enhancing forest ecosystem services, the USFS reports that sustainable forest management can actually increase the ability of forests to sequester atmospheric carbon. Planting new trees and improving forest health through thinning and prescribed burning are some of the ways to increase forest carbon in the long run. Harvesting and regenerating forests can also result in net carbon sequestration in wood products and new forest growth.

Contrary to the idea that paper use results in forest loss, strong demand for sustainably sourced paper products provides a powerful economic incentive for millions of landowners to keep their land forested and sustainably managed rather than converting or selling it for non-forest uses like urban development which, according to the USFS, is the leading cause of deforestation in the US. 

Because paper is manufactured using mostly renewable bioenergy (64% on average in the US), the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that the pulp and paper industry is responsible for less than 0.6% of total US greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the paper and forest products industry produces more renewable bioenergy than any other industry in the country. 

While it’s true that paper manufacturing uses a great deal of water, very little of it is consumed in the process. In a typical paper mill, process water is recycled ten times or more, then it’s cleaned to meet strict government water quality standards and approximately 90% is returned to its source. About 1% remains in the manufactured paper, and the rest simply evaporates back into the environment. Roughly 90% of chemicals used in the kraft pulping process are recovered and recycled. And with a recovery rate of 68%, paper products are recycled more than any other material in the US municipal solid waste stream.

There is a case to be made that some businesses can find efficiencies by moving more communications to digital. We’re not opposed to electronic communication. But the foundation for that case shouldn’t be grounded in data-free, antipaper, environmental myths that do more to defeat sensible solutions to climate change than to advance them.

Readers can find facts cited in this article with linked sources at

Kathi Rowzie is the President of Two Sides North America, part of the non-profit network that includes more than 600 member companies from across the paper and paper-based packaging value chain.