Is Going Paperless A Google Greenwashing Scam?

The paper industry is peeved at Google right now. An industry organization called “Two Sides” recently published a scathing open letter to the technology giant accusing it of scamming the American people by encouraging them to use less paper in 2013. Our world has become increasingly digitized, and many agree that a reduction in paper use (and thus waste) is good for the planet. More trees = happy Earth, right? Not according to the paper companies.

Two Sides indignantly claims that Google’s new initiative is “clearly another example of a self interested organisation using an environmentally focused marketing campaign to promote its services while ignoring its own impact upon the environment.” Do they have a point? We’ll take a look after the jump.

Google, digital, paperless, paper industry,

Image via outcast104/Flickr

Initially, hearing the claim that “going paperless” has zero environmental benefit made me incredulous. Who does the paper industry think it is? Don’t they know we use about 71 million tons of paper in the U.S. each year and only about 37 percent of the fiber used to make new paper products in the US comes from recycled sources? How could using less paper possibly be bad for the environment?!

Google’s own environmental impact is astounding,” the Two Sides letter states, and it’s an accusation that’s hard to refute. Google uses 2.3 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, most of which is gobbled up by massive data centers. The letter goes on to point out that digital activities, such as conducting a Google search or watching a YouTube video, combine for massive annual energy consumption and carbon emissions as well. Multiplied by the billions of people doing these things thousands of times a year, it’s pretty staggering. There’s also the nasty reality of e-waste, the fastest growing waste stream in the world. Going digital inevitably requires the purchase of a device which, though it requires no paper, is full of toxic metals and chemicals. Not exactly environmentally-friendly.

Of course, what Two Sides fails to acknowledge in its letter is the significant threat the paper industry poses to old growth forests here in the U.S., as well as rain forests and the endangered animals that live there. There’s also no mention of the massive amount of water consumed in the paper making process, and then the water and air that’s polluted from the toxic chemicals used to make paper oh-so-white and smooth. And we haven’t even started to discuss the nasty inks and dyes used to create paper packaging.

There’s also the inconvenient truth that Google is working hard to source energy for its data centers from renewable sources. And while it’s certainly not the norm, thousands of families installed solar, wind, and geothermal power systems at their homes and businesses, meaning that the energy powering their digital devices produces almost no negative emissions.

What do you think? Is Google’s “Go Paperless” campaign nothing but a self-serving marketing ploy, or is the paper industry just sore  about becoming obsolete? Tell us in the comments.

Beth Buczynski is a freelancer writer and editor currently living in the Rocky Mountain West. Her articles appear on Care2, Ecosalon and Inhabitat, just to name a few. So far, Beth has lived in or near three major U.S. mountain ranges, and is passionate about protecting the important ecosystems they represent. Follow Beth on Twitter as @ecosphericblog

  • turdfergsn

    The power consumption numbers they attributed to google are going to happen whether we print or not. Printing is optional and it’s good to encourage people to print less.

  • http://twitter.com/freak3dot Ryan Johnston

    It blew me away that the paper companies put out an eBook to talk about the benefits of paper.

  • D Trahan

    The tremendous growth in pad sales is driving a hockey stick graph of growth in ebook revenue. I rarely purchase paper-printed books. It’s just so easy to click, download, and have it instantly. Sure it took power but in the grand scheme I have to think its no chemical, no power to make paper, no power to transport paper, no power to dispose of paper, no landfill to decompose or incinerator gas. I’d like to see an independent report on the net net comparison across the board.

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.nesbitt.16 Michael Nesbitt

    Of course Google is self-serving, just as is the paper industry. Cut down on both, for their own sake, and let nature take care of itself.

  • http://www.facebook.com/BillGibson3 Bill Gibson

    Carbon and other resource footprint is difficult to calculate. But it is not just a matter of opinion, either. Maybe the smallest footprint is the oral tradition, but that is not the same thing as a library, or this wonderful internet.