A holistic sustainable development lens on this challenge

When I started this challenge, I didn’t think there would be any criticism of it, and instead there would mostly be commendation.  After all, this challenge is first and foremost a personal one:  can I quit paper?  I seemingly have an addiction to paper, given the quantity of paper that I have stored in my basement back in Canada, and quitting that was always going to be a great personal accomplishment.

The secondary element of the challenge is about changing the system that requires me to use paper, whether that is class handouts, assignments, or other, but that was always to be a consequence of trying to accomplish the personal challenge.  I had expected some resistance from ‘the system’ if you will, and that I would need to take specific steps in order to clear the way for me and others to become truly paperless.

I had always looked at this challenge with an environmental lens, and to some extent an economic lens, and that was good enough.  I hadn’t thought of the challenge in the context of a holistic assessment of its sustainability, but some comments have caused me to think deeper.

Sustainable development has various definitions and a spectrum of interpretations, but in general it means balancing three pillars: environment, economic and social.  How does my challenge perform on these elements?


One of the initial motivators for me was that paper has an environmental impact, from an input of trees (reducing carbon in forests), much energy to produce (again, carbon to produce that energy) and disposal in landfill when done with.  How does this compare to using using electronic media as the alternative, as I said I would look at?  It is difficult to say exactly, as the materials used to manufacture my iPad and those used for paper are different so they inflict dissimilar damages on the earth.  We can use emissions of greenhouse gases as a common denominator, as many think of climate change as the pre-eminent environmental challenge and we should “weight” that impact the most.

From the research I can find, using my iPad for nearly 7 hours to take notes would emit the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as a single sheet of paper, or if that sheet of paper is 100% post consumer recycled paper then I could use my iPad for 4 hours.  I am pretty sure I would probably use more than a single sheet of paper in 7, or even 4, hours of lectures!  So far, iPad wins.

But this does not account for the embodied energy in the iPad, from all the metal and other parts that are in its sleek, beautiful body, which accounts for the majority of emissions.  Once you include that, as well as the emissions from transporting it and disposing it at the end of life, Apple estimates that over an iPad’s entire lifetime with “intensive daily use”, the device will account for just over 100 kg of GHG emissions.   This means that the lifecycle GHG emissions of the iPad is approximately the same amount of as from 7,700 sheets of new, virgin paper or over 13,000 sheets of 100-percent post-consumer recycled paper! Yikes, I am going to need to have to have used a massive amount of paper if this is going to make environmental sense!  Perhaps paper is more environmentally friendly…

However, my iPad is a very versatile, flexible devices that does so much for me generally.  To me, it is not clear how much of the embedded energy required to manufacture, deliver, and dispose of my iPad we should account for in terms of offsetting paper use.  If I was not quitting paper, would I still have the iPad and therefore we should only include the marginal increase in GHG emissions from extra iPad use?   Would I have both the iPad and a big pile of paper from class that needs to be filed?  Frankly, the answer is pretty likely.  I got my iPad to go paperless, but now, even if I wasn’t trying to do so, I would still have the iPad.

So what is the verdict?  I would assess that my use of electronic media including my iPad is more environmentally friendly than using paper, but it is not as clear cut as I first thought and it really comes down to the methodological choice of including the sunk embodied energy.


Is using the iPad to take notes more economical than using paper?  An iPad new in the Apple store costs about £400, while you can buy a 100 page notebook at Staples for £2 (2 pence a page), or a 500 page ream of printer paper for less than £3 (0.6 pence a page).  Wow… I would need to use 200 notebooks to match the cost of my iPad, or use over 65,000 printed pages!!!  Mind blowing, and paper wins as the cheaper technology.

Or does it?  Again, we have to be cautious about attributing the entire capital cost of the iPad to eliminating paper.  If I only used my iPad to take notes and to avoid using paper, then we could do so.  But I don’t.  I use it for other things, including email, internet, or playing Angry Birds and Plants vs. Zombies.  Would I have the iPad even if I wasn’t quitting paper?   The answer is still most likely yes!

If we ignore the capital cost, using the iPad is still not free, as it does have an electricity costs.  Using my iPad consumes about 3 watt-hours of electricity per hour, which costs about 0.03 pence at even the highest cost of electricity.  I would need to use my iPad for about 3 days at 7 hours a day to cost the same as just one sheet of printed paper!!  Clearly, on operational cost, the iPad wins!

Final verdict?  The iPad has a higher capital cost, but a lower operational cost than using paper.  Which is more economic depends on the portion of capital cost that should be allocated to this challenge and which is not.  While the initial motivation for buying the iPad was to go paperless, I now buy it again even if I wasn’t going to be using it to quit paper.   If I was to buy the iPad only for notes and to go paperless, this challenge would be uneconomic; but if the iPad is purchased and being used for other purposes, then it is more economic to use the iPad than paper.


This was the factor that I hadn’t really considered when I conceived of this challenge.  If this challenge was exclusively personal, and did not have any impacts outside of my actions, then the social impacts of my challenge could likely be considered to be zero. However, while the challenge is predominately personal, it does interact with the larger system and others around me; I cannot simply draw the system boundaries around me as a solitary individual. 

First, if we were to take the challenge to the extreme around the world, and ALL paper use was eliminated, this would have a large social impact on those that are employed by the paper and printing industries.  I can’t even venture a guess as to how many thousands (or millions) that may be.

Second, and closer to home and the scale of the challenge, while lecturers bringing packages of printed notes to give out in class is a consistent sight at Cambridge, one impact of this challenge is that some lecturers are doing that less often, and some are exclusively posting the presentation online either before or after class.  From the perspective of our challenge, we should consider this a win:  through constant asking and suggestion, we have managed to reduce paper use.

The social problem is the “non-optional” nature that this lack of paper implies.  With lecturers only putting the documents online, those that use paper are disadvantaged in favour of those that use electronic forms.  As much as I get frustrated when the notes are not available electronically, others may get frustrated when the notes are not available in paper form.  Some people can’t afford to purchase an iPad, other type of tablet, or a laptop. Some people just prefer to use paper.  Others have medical conditions that make it difficult to read exclusively electronically, and as a result they print everything to be able to read it.  If notes and presentations are only electronic, what are these people to do?

The simple answer is that they could just print the notes, either before or after class.  However, this means that they individuals have an increased cost as they now have to pay for printing and expend the time resources to do so, where before they got this for free and conveniently when they arrived at the lecture.  There is a broader question of whether we should be putting a price on use of resources and disposal, or should we let these sorts of activities continue free, but concentrating on the social impact assessment it is clear that there is the potential for an impact, a point that has been raised to me personally.

How could this be mitigated? We wouldn’t want to put up a barrier to going paperless, but if we want to be truely sustainable we need to mitigate the social impact.

One way this could be handled is to ensure that lecture notes go up a minimum of 24 hours in advance of the lecture, to allow those that choose to be able to print them in advance.  We could give a specific printing allowance for that, if we wanted to, but I would argue that this is, or should be, actually cost neutral:  the person is paying for printing the notes either through printing charges, or through a slightly higher tuition as the department has to bear increased printing costs.

A second way would be for those that require printed copies could ‘register’ with the lecture at the beginning of the term, and that way the lecturer knows how many printed copies they need to bring.  This would reduce the amount of printing, saving the lecturer time and the department money, but would require proactive-ness on the part of students and lecturers to ensure that those copies are properly distributed at the beginning of class to those that have registered in advance.  This would also go a long way to eliminating the guess work that lecturers need to undergo as to how many copies they need to print!

In the end, this challenge has some positive and negative impacts.  I would say that this challenge has positive environmental and economic impacts, but those assessments are dependent on a methodological choice.  There is a potential negative social impact, but I also suggested two potential solutions that could over come that impact.

What do you think?

Be paperless,


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