Don’t turn the page on paper or print!

Ken Hickson says: “Unless you’re into burning books, just remember that they store carbon as well as the trees they come from.”

Fri 03 Mar 23


I’m getting rather tired of people and companies telling me that they’re going paperless. Turning the page on paper and print.

Have you come across statements like this?

  • We don’t print business cards now so we can cut our carbon emissions.
  • We don’t have a newspaper delivered any more to save the trees.
  • We are a paperless office now as we’re going digital.

What’s more, businesses, including banks, are telling the hapless consumer that reducing the use of paper and using electronic services (i.e. e-billing or e-statements) is ‘green’, ‘better for the environment’ or ‘saves trees’.

This is deceptive advertising and as Two Sides Australia tells us, these claims are not only unsubstantiated and misleading, they are also not in line with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Green Marketing and the Australian Consumer Law legislation. 

Most paper for printing originates from a renewable resource, trees grown in responsibly managed forests, whether in Australia, Europe or even Southeast Asian countries.

Paper is the most recycled commodity with a recovery rate of 87% in Australia and in Europe it has a recycling rate of 74%.  In Singapore, NEA tells us, the recycling rate of paper/cardboard edged up marginally from 38% in 2020 to 39% in 2021.

The majority of paper originates from FSC or PEFC certified forests. Footage courtesy of @TEDx.

Of course, we could do much better than that, but the banks and utility companies urging us to go paperless pay little or no attention to the growing environmental footprint of their digital infrastructure which is far from negligible.

While we haven’t seen research on this fascinating topic in any Asian country or city, we ‘ve seen a lot from Europe and America that supports this.

What we do know in Singapore – and every other Asian city – is how much energy is used in the home, office, factory or on the road. And as we become more and more dependent of digital devices, instead of paper and print, let’s consider what this adds up to.

As Techwire Asia told us in its April 2022 online issue: “While data centres form the backbone of a booming digital economy, they are also huge energy hogs.

“Everything from the servers, storage equipment and cooling infrastructures has a large appetite for electricity and water.

“For instance, cooling alone can consume up to 40% of a data centre’s energy consumption. This, in turn, will have an undeniable negative impact on the environment”.

Further, the article confirms that data centres “are responsible for up to 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions”.  That’s equivalent to the global emissions of the world’s total airline fleet and the shipping industry combined!

In Singapore, we’re very reliant on data centres, which account for 7% of the country’s electricity consumption. And 95% of that is generated by burning natural gas, a fossil fuel.

This means that as indirect greenhouse-gas emitters through electricity use, data centres contribute massively to global warming and put a considerable strain on the environment.

You could well ask why do data centres need be such “huge energy hogs”?

To put it simply: to enable us all to go digital. At home, in the office, school or factory.

So, if we are thinking of cutting our personal or household carbon footprint – or to go green – we need to seriously look at our energy use.

In Singapore homes, we can be fairly certain that air conditioning takes up the lion’s share – between 40% and 60% – of a monthly power bill.  

For most office buildings in Singapore, air conditioning can account for as much as 70% of its total energy use.

Energy-hungry yet space-starved, Singapore faces big obstacles in its quest for renewables. Footage courtesy of @CNAInsider

The rest comes from powering our computers, television sets, appliances, lighting and – of course – charging our “smart phones”.

We should think about how much time we spend watching tv or on the lap-top, iPhone, or Kindle, compared to how much “free time” we spend reading a printed newspaper, magazine or book.

A US study by the Cool Climate Network showed that driving our cars, heating and/or cooling our homes and running appliances make up a major part of our household carbon footprint.

Food contributes another 15% with much of that a result of the large amount of energy required to produce and deliver meat, for example.

Goods and services each contribute 12.5%, with entertainment, clothing and health care being the main sources of CO2 emissions in those categories.

And where might paper and print consumption fit in?

The Cool Climate Network has a category called “office and reading”, which includes paper as one component. The whole category represents about 400 lbs – or about 180 kilos – of CO2 annually or 0.4% of total household carbon footprint. This was reported in Printing Impressions in March 2018.

Similar results were found in Finland where 0.9% of the overall climate impacts of household consumption were attributed to printed products.

Consumers should consider their cabon footprint. Footage courtesy of @BBCNews.

While we are not advocating a return to the dark ages and we certainly accept digital has a place – as the printing industry does – but we need to keep things in perspective.

Two Sides, in a global survey, established that the majority prefer and enjoy reading in print:

  • Consumers prefer to read the printed version of books (72%), magazines (72%) and newspapers/news (55%) over digital options;
  • Many respondents also indicated that reading in print is more enjoyable than reading electronically;
  • Consumers trust print and gain a deeper understanding when reading print;
  • More consumers believe they gain a deeper understanding of the story when read from print media (65%) over online news sources (49%).
  • In addition, consumers also trust the stories read in printed newspapers (51%) more than stories found on social media (24%). 

What about printed books versus e-books?

A Pew Research Center report from the US earlier this year stated categorically that print books out-sell eBooks 4-to1.

Printed book sales amounted to 750.89 million units compared to 191 million e-books were sold in the United States in 2020

The trouble is, according to the same study, many readers assume that e-books should be free, or at least much cheaper than their print counterparts.

Some publishers insist that printing a book account for only about 10% of its total cost.

As an author of seven books – all in print, but five of them certainly available as e-books – I put a value on books in more ways than one. 

As a book reviewer, I insist on getting a printed book from the publisher to read, as I find I cannot “get into a book” if it’s not in my hands to hold and properly evaluate.

As a magazine editor and contributor, I prefer to see my articles in print, but I continue to produce content for online media too.

All this goes to show that digitalisation and sustainability can be compatible bedfellows.

We can manage our forests. We can use certified paper more. We can recycle much more paper.

We can manage our printing and publishing businesses in a more sustainable fashion. We can work on energy efficiency measures at home and in the office, without resorting to “going paperless”.

Print and paper are here to stay. I’ll bank on that!

Ken Hickson wrote this article originally for Print and Media Association of Singapore (PMAS), as requested by Genevieve Chua, who is not only Honorary Treasurer for PMAS, but CEO of OVOL Singapore, which is a member of the Japan Pulp and Paper group, along with Ball & Doggett, the largest paper merchant/distributor in Australia. Ms Chua is also well known for her involvement with PEFC International as a Board member from 2010 – 2020.


  • Ken Hickson

    Ken Hickson is a journalist/editor/author with 60 years' experience in Media in Asia Pacific, with a strong focus on sustainable forestry, mass engineered timber, and drawing attention to deforestation, illegal logging, and out of control forest fires. He is also a Wood Central Southeast Asia contributor.


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