In this commentary, Fred Bercovitch, wildlife conservation biologist at Kyoto University, challenges the conventional wisdom that a paperless workplace is more environmentally friendly than one is using paper. The views expressed are his own.
Where would we be without cell phones? According to the United States Census Bureau, the USA has about as many cell phones as people. Such electronic devices are only one of many technological products, such as tablets, laptops, desktops, and television sets that are nearly ubiquitous in today’s world. All of these gizmos and gadgets, as well as electronic and hybrid vehicles, cannot operate without rare earth elements, or REEs. And, herein lies the conservation conundrum because the extraction and use of REEs devastates the environment. Are hybrid vehicles and a paperless workplace actually beneficial to the landscape when compared with regular vehicles and using paper?
To understand why the paperless society has a gigantic ecological footprint assisting in the wrecking of the planet, let’s return to our cell phone. A typical cell phone weighs only about five or six ounces, and contains a little over 0.1 ounce of REEs. Neodymium, a REE, is a key component of the tiny rechargeable battery and enables the phone to vibrate when in silent mode. Neodymium is also added to the screen to enhance picture quality. Europium, terbium, and yttrium, all REEs, are bundled into the liquid crystal display (LCD) screen to provide sharp color. Before REEs can be incorporated into cell phones and other devices, they must be extracted from the ground and separated from the geological material that encrusts them.
The minuscule amounts of REEs contained in a cell phone are obtained through open pit mining. This process involves gouging out humongous areas of land to substantial depths and bringing the resultant material to a location for the extraction of key metals, such as REEs. The rocky material is scooped out of the mining basin and dumped into a transport vehicle. One of the most common vehicles is a Caterpillar 797B, a truck with a heavy duty battery that weighs 278 pounds and an operator’s seat some 20 feet above the ground. The monster-sized dump truck sits atop six 59/R63xDR tires, each one of which is 13 feet in diameter and weighs about 11,800 pounds. The standard 1,000 gallon fuel tank holds 3,099 pounds of gasoline, and the truck has a load capacity of 400 tons. Needless to say, these behemoths move slowly and are not known for great gas mileage.
Gold mining in Peru. Photos by Rhett A. Butler
The trucks haul the geological material to a processing area. At any one time, multiple trucks are operating in open pit mines, some at the bottom, some going up the unpaved roads hugging the sides of the pit, and some descending those same roads. The more material removed from the pit, the deeper it goes and the further the trucks drive. As they drive, of course, they are spitting exhaust and chemicals in to the air, as well as stirring up small dust particles from the ground that contribute to atmospheric pollution. Once the geological matrix is dumped for processing, it is ground in to a fine powder and treated with water, solvents, chemicals, and toxic metals to separate out the desired material from the rest. The unwanted rocky leftovers become tailings that often contain radioactive material, which tends to be found in the same deposits as the REEs. The resultant tailings and slush are piped to storage areas.
After the separation process, the REEs can be sent to manufacturing locations for inclusion in your cell phone. Even though one smart phone uses only a tiny quantity of REEs, the cumulative total around the world is staggering. Simplifying the arithmetic, with 300,000,000 cell phones in the USA, each one containing 0.1 ounce of REEs, then close to 1,000 tons of REEs are embedded in cell phones in the USA. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that most people obtain a new cell phone about every 18 months. Estimates range from as low as 1 percent to up to 10 percent of cell phones are recycled in the USA. The rest end up in landfills as electronic waste. In 2005, about 65,000 tons of electronic waste in the USA was from cell phones, or less than 1 percent of the electronic waste generated by the United States. It is practically impossible to even imagine how much geological material must be excavated from an open pit mine in order to provide enough REEs for continued manufacture of cell phones and other products.
Close to 150,000 tons of REEs are used every year in the manufacture of electronic devices and instruments for worldwide use, which is a little over the displacement weight of a Nimitz Class aircraft carrier. Catalytic converters, designed to reduce carbon monoxide exhaust, contain cerium, a REE. A Toyota Prius, one of the stereotypical symbols of a ‘greenie’, runs on a battery that contains 20 pounds of the REE lanthanum. Erbium is required for fiber optic data transmission networks. The renewable energy produced by gargantuan windmills is provided complements of a magnet that contains about 500 pounds of neodymium in each windmill. Computer hard drives depend upon the REE dysprosium, while the energy-saving fluorescent lights favored by many could not be produced without phosphorus derived from lanthanum, cerium, terbium, yttrium, and europium, all REEs. Global positioning system (GPS), digital music players, sonar systems, night vision goggles, laser guided range finders and missiles, MRI machines, microwave filters, and huge flat screen televisions all use REEs. Even the aluminum alloy bats used in baseball contain scandium, another REE. Nobody can escape it; we live in a world where REEs are required in our daily life.
Platinum mine in South Africa.
Rare earth elements are actually not rare, but finding them clumped in commercially productive sites is rare, although that is not how they got their name. Fifteen of them are metals that belong to a chemical family, called lanthides, that reside in the next to last row of the periodic table, while two, scandium and yttrium, fall outside this family. They have special properties that make them not only exceptionably valuable for our modern devices, but are irreplaceable since synthetics do not exist. As with biological trace elements that are crucial to maintaining physiological functioning, such as zinc and selenium, rare earth elements are crucial to maintaining electronic functioning. There are no substitutes; we are as dependent upon them as we are on the essential vitamins and minerals that keep us alive.
We live in an era of constant demand for more and better electronic devices. That demand requires more REEs, as well as more electricity for both manufacture and use of the multiple devices. Whether fossil fuels, hydroelectric, biofuels, nuclear, wind, solar, or other power source, the increased use of cell phones, laptops, tablets, electric cars, cloud computing, servers, videoconferences, televisions, etc. demands more power and thereby has an unseen, but not invisible, impact on the environment.
We cannot simply stop using the devices and I am neither some luddite longing for the good old days, nor some shill for the paper industry. As a wildlife conservation biologist, my career is dedicating to striving for sustainable economics with a minimum impact on the environment and a maximum impact on preserving the flora and fauna of our planet. The paper industry also destroys our landscape and uses many resources to function. The central issue is not paper or paperless, but recognizing that both have a negative effect on our planet, so the goal is to judiciously use both.
Peat forest cleared for an industrial pulp and paper plantation in Indonesia.
Paper comes from trees. Chopping down trees is a double whammy for the environment. First, leaves convert carbon dioxide to oxygen and, second, living trees store carbon. Hence, when a tree is cut down, the leaves stop making oxygen and the carbon contained in the tree is slowly released in to the atmosphere. Deforestation accounts for up to 30 percent of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and carbon dioxide is probably the atmospheric component contributing to global warming. Close to 50,000 square miles of forested land, an area about twice the size of Tasmania, are lost to logging every year. The United Nations has placed a good deal of blame for deforestation on mega-corporations controlled by influential families and politicians in Malaysia and Indonesia, who are engaged in both legal and illegal logging. About 40 percent of world wide trade in lumber products is illegal, amounting to some $17,000,000,000 per year.
Obviously, much of the logging is not destined for paper products, but some of it is. Even tree farms that supply lumber for paper products must log the trees, although they plant more. As with the open pit mines, the paper industry requires large vehicles to transport the lumber. Water and solvents are used in processing the wood into a pulp to make paper products, and energy is needed to power all of that machinery. Forest plantations only provide a fraction of the wood used around the world in paper products, with the paper industry estimating that less than 10 percent of the world’s forests are certified as sustainable. A good deal of the material used in toilet tissue in Europe is derived from illegal logging in Russia.
According to one estimate, 145.5 kJ (kilojoules; a unit of energy) are required to produce one sheet of paper, while 153.3 kJ are used by a desktop while reading two pages of print on the monitor. According to another estimate, the power consumed by one computer over a one month period is about the same amount as used in producing 88 pounds of paper, which the average person consumes in less than six months. Even when a desktop is turned off, electricity is still consumed. Paper is no more a panacea for protecting the planet than is paperless.
Peatland cleared for wood pulp production in Sumatra.
Whether the manufacture and use of electronic devices, hybrid vehicles, and other modern equipment is more environmentally friendly than is the manufacture and use of paper products is a futile discussion. In some cases, no alternatives exist; rechargeable batteries come in a variety of types, but all of them use REEs, and what would we do without toilet paper? How does one measure and compare the ecological cost of gouging out the landscape for open pit mining to obtain REEs used in medical equipment against clear cutting a forested area for the manufacture and use of paper products, a process that accelerates global warming? Printing magazines on glossy paper with color illustrations does create an environmental footprint, but so does posting it online for people to use their computerized devices and constant electric demand for reading the same articles. The real struggle is not between technological advocates who view themselves as environmentally friendly and old fashioned technologically challenged people pushing use of paper, but between ourselves and our planet.
Arguing about paper or paperless as a more ecofriendly tactic is as productive as arguing about how many angels fit on the head of a pin. The duality is analogous to the cloth or disposable diaper dispute. People on both sides of the divide can marshal evidence in favor of their own position and in opposition to the other side. Reading a printed newspaper on a couch should not be considered as an attribute of someone who is ruining the planet by supporting a paper option anymore than using a Toyota Prius should be considered an attribute of someone who is not ruining the planet by using a hybrid vehicle. We simply confront a devilish dilemma. Modern society is under attack by some beasts that can be tamed, but not domesticated. There is no free-ride, only conscientious attempts to keep the ride as low cost as possible.
Excavator in an Indonesian acacia plantation.
The canary has been singing in the coal mines for over 100 years. In May 1908, in a paper entitled “The Conservation of Our Natural Resources”, John L. Mathews pled for conservation in The Atlantic Monthly. He wrote that rivers were “suffering from deforestation… our mineral fuels [are] becoming more costly to mine, and amazingly less abundant; our farm lands [are] losing millions of tons of their most fertile portions by soil wash…” His cri de coeur occurred just days before President Theodore Roosevelt convened the Governors’ Conference on Conservation at the White House, the first national gathering devoted to devising strategies to save resources. Roosevelt sought opinions from a wide range of people. Among the attendees were the Secretary of the Interior, James R. Garfield, the conservation advocate and publisher of The Century Magazine, Robert Underwood Johnson, the steel magnate, Andrew Carnegie, the railroad baron, James J. Hill, the United Mine Workers union leader, John Mitchell, and biologist C. Hart Merriam. Roosevelt was out of office less than one year after the conference, but he achieved more for conservation in the United States than any President before or after him has managed.
The Atlantic Monthly essay urged readers to promote conservation “not only to preserve a livable land for our children’s children, but even to assure a modicum of prosperity for our old age.” Times have not changed in this regard. So, which will it be? Clear cutting of old growth forests that convert aged trees into a pulpy gook turned into paper as the globe heats up from deforestation or gouging out holes as big as craters in order to obtain a thimble full of key metals required for our modern society? As Walt Kelly’s Pogo remarked on the first Earth Day: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Walt Kelly’s Pogo
Fred B. Bercovitch, Ph.D., is a Professor at Kyoto University specializing in wildlife biology and conservation science who has authored over 120 academic papers. This article is extracted and expanded from his forthcoming book connecting conservation with evolution.