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Clearing the air around e-waste – Print21 magazine feature

Monday, 19 March 2012
By Print21
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Print has long been an easy target for environmentalists—and budget managers—looking to reduce the amount of paper consumed. But what about the growing pile of electronic items that are being discarded faster than ever and not recycled? Surely e-waste is an even bigger problem? Alison Stieven-Taylor examines the misinformation and confusion in the environmental debate and looks forward to the imminent arrival of Two Sides in Australia.

Even the staunchest climate-change sceptic can’t deny that saving the environment has become ‘the’ movement of this millennium. ‘Carbon tax’, ‘carbon offset’, ‘sustainability’, ‘environmental footprint’ and ‘green washing’ are just some of the words that are now etched into the global discourse on how to save the planet from ourselves.

Central to the argument around climate-change, is the question ‘Are these environmental issues we face fact or fabrication?’. As the facts mount up, and the polar caps diminish, the case for caring for the environment strengthens, but it is burdened by misinformation and misper­ceptions on both sides of the argument. As we approach the end of the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol in 2012, the lack of clarity from governments about the way forward is dividing communities, countries and industries.

Misinformation can be found in many quarters. The internet is the biggest offender, with sites like Wikipedia, the collaborative free encyclopaedia, one of the most frequently referenced sites in the environmental debate. But Wikipedia itself admits that 1 in 70 of its 19 million pages contain misinformation or is just plain wrong.

When there are so many voices in the conversation, working out what to believe and what to discard is time-consuming and confusing. For example, on the topic of carbon offsetting versus carbon reduction there are different schools of thought depending on which side of the fence you sit, and whether you have a vested interest in the burgeoning industry of carbon offsets. Those who offset carbon are still belching too much CO2 into the atmosphere, but now they can feel warm and fuzzy about it. The promise of investing in new energy schemes with the money collected from the carbon offset industry is subject to a host of other factors coming into play—research and develop­ment, the creation of new industries, distribution of new energy et al.

In July, the first Australian Carbon Tax will be applied. Environmental champion Al Gore says we are doing the right thing and leading the way. That may be true, we all have a role to play, but if the major polluters of the planet—the USA, China, Russia and India—don’t come to the party, then will our efforts, and our money, be in vain? Finding the answer to that question is far harder than it should be. Just ask our illustrious leader Julia Gillard or any of her equally misinformed cohorts. Not that the Opposition has any better ideas on what to do.

Rethinking recycling

The printing industry has come a long way in greening its act, but the perception that print is environmentally damaging persists. This is despite years of forest regeneration programs, the move away from solvent to plant and aqueous-based inks, energy efficient equipment and practices, and recycling programs run by major equipment suppliers for the recycling of ink containers and cartridges, amongst other initiatives.

Recycled paper has been one of the cornerstones for the industry’s argument that printing can be environmentally friendly so you can imagine my surprise when researching this story, I discovered that, as reported by academics at the University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden (1997), the process of paper recycling is apparently harmful to the environment because it produces a high volume of CO2. The printing industry still touts recycling of paper as a positive, but if there is any weight to the Swedish study, this will have to be rethought too, something the multi-million dollar paper recycling industry may not be thrilled about.

Pictured: A former farmer in Taizhou, China, now making a living plucking chips and components from circuit boards. Behind him is a pile of hard drives from imported computers.

One of the greatest offenders in the proliferation of misinformation on environmental issues is the media which has become fixated about championing everything digital. Promoting the environmental positives of the Digital Age can be tenuous at best, and at worst, downright incorrect. When you compare the printing industry to the PC industry for example, print can stand with its head high. The PC industry on the other hand should hang its collective head in shame if the documentary The Digital Dump: Exporting High-Tech Re-use and Abuse to Africa is any indication of what is really happening out there. Produced by the Basel Action Network in Seattle, USA, which is billed as the “world’s only organization focused on confronting the global environmental injustice and economic inefficiency of toxic trade (toxic wastes, products and technologies) and its devastating impacts”, The Digital Dump is nothing short of shocking.

In this documentary, the filmmakers demonstrate that Africa has become the dumping ground for billions of tonnes of discarded PCs and e-scrap sent from North America and Europe by supposed e-recyclers and waste brokers. According to the documentary, every month more than 500 40-foot container ships arrive in Lagos, and it is estimated that 75 per cent of their cargo is non-reusable or non-recyclable. This scrap is often dumped by rivers, or on empty blocks of land on the outskirts of impoverished towns and burned, the acrid, black smoke billowing into the atmosphere and further adding to the smog that is enveloping the planet.

It infuriates me that the damage being caused to the environment by the e-culture is being largely ignored while traditional forms of communication are maligned. But nobody talks about this. They do, however, talk about how many trees are being cut down and how evil paper is, and as a consequence how detrimental printing is to the environment as opposed to e-communication vehicles like email. Multi-national corporations and banks largely perpetuate these myths. Under the guise of environmental responsibility they promote e-bills and e-correspondence to their customers, items that previously would have been printed. Their real motivation is surely to save costs—theirs not consumers—to further boost profits.

Pictured: Electronic waste dumped in a residential area just outside Alaba market in Lagos, Nigeria. The e-waste is routinely burned here.

Two Sides to everything

But change is coming. Two Sides, an initiative by representatives of the forestry, paper and printing suppliers industries in the UK and Europe, is to be rolled out in Australia this year. According to its website, Two Sides’ charter is “to promote the responsible production and use of print and paper, and dispel common environmental misconceptions by providing verifiable information on why print and paper is an attractive, practical and sustainable communications medium”. Two Sides is a rich resource of information on the industry’s impact on the environment and other related topics.

Since its formation in 2008, Two Sides has had considerable success in changing perceptions. For example, to counter the green washing by institutions such as insurance companies and banks in the UK which were touting their e-statements as helping to save the planet, Two Sides demonstrated through statistics that e-communication was not more environ­mentally friendly than printing. Although these institutions didn’t go back to printing statements, several did change their messaging, which is a positive for print.

The Two Sides’ website is a veritable smorgasbord of information on the environment and print on paper. It features some very interesting facts and figures. Consider e-waste for example. On the Two Sides website it states that, “E-waste is now the fastest growing component of the municipal solid waste stream. In Europe e-waste is increasing at three to five percent a year, almost three times faster than the total waste stream. The amount of electronic products discarded globally has skyrocketed, with 20-50 million tonnes generated every year. Electronic waste (e-waste) now makes up five percent of all municipal solid waste worldwide”. When you look at statistics that are in the millions —716 million new computers in use in 2010; 178 million new computer users in China, 80 million in India; 12 million mobile phones sold in Australia in 2010—it doesn’t take long to get a handle on the size of the e-waste problem we are facing.

E-waste is a far greater issue for the planet than the printing industry’s use of paper, as statistics demonstrate. “Of the wood extracted from the world’s forests, 53 percent is used for energy production, 28 percent is used by sawmills, and around 11 percent is used directly by the paper industry”.

One of my favourite facts from the Two Sides site is: “Print and Paper comprises one percent or less of World Greenhouse Gas Emissions”. Now that’s something to talk about.

Suppliers come green too

Suppliers to the industry are also committed to improving its environmental credentials. Heidelberg is the only printing press manu­-
facturer to deliver a press with a carbon neutral footprint and the company also sells a range of eco-friendly consumables under its Saphira brand. HP is another which is committed to environmental solutions. HP’s aqueous-based latex ink technology is revolutionary and has been embraced by printers around the globe looking for a more environmentally palatable solution to signage production. The company has also implemented extensive recycling programs around the world for ink cartridges of all sizes and ink containers used by the HP Indigo presses. Fuji Xerox has a recycling/reuse program and in 2011 its Resource Recycling System in Suzhou, China, reported zero landfill. And there are many other suppliers who are also running similar programs independently and with other organisations. For example, Planet Ark, an environmental advocacy group, runs the Cartridges 4 Planet Ark ink cartridge recycling program with support from OEMs.

Two Sides isn’t just about the environ­mental impact on print. The organisation also provides statistics and information designed to help promote print’s place in the marketing mix. As an example, if you combine these two statements—“Mail represents 0.1 percent of total household emissions. It amounts to only 14kg of CO2 per year based on an average number of mail items for a household. This is equivalent to:—One 70km car journey—Five Cheeseburgers—Nine litres of milk —6.6 minutes of a transatlantic flight”—and—“UK studies have shown campaigns combining mail and Internet yield up to an additional 25 percent response rate”—you quickly understand that print communication has less impact on the environment than its detractors would have you believe. And it also delivers a sound return on investment. That kind of logic is hard to refute, and should be easy to sell.

When Two Sides Australia kicks into gear, the industry, both printers and suppliers, will have access to information that will enable them to communicate the benefits of print, both fiscal and environmental, to their customers. This communication will be crucial, I believe, in making Two Sides as successful in Australia as it has been in the UK and Europe and in lifting the veil of misperceptions once and for all. Let’s hope the initiative doesn’t get bogged down in politics like so many things attached to the environment and is given the best chance to succeed.

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