By Ben Walton, Ownum

A process can be evaluated from an environmental perspective by measuring the amount of non-reusable resources required. A more environmentally friendly process uses fewer resources. To understand the relationship between digitization and its environmental impact, let’s look into the number of resources consumed by a process pre and post digitization.

An example to consider is a driver’s license. A paper driver’s license requires resources for its creation, transportation, and distribution. The industrial processes used to create the physical license consume water and fuel to run the machines and plastic for the license itself. Packaging the license uses paper or plastic and then more fuel is needed for the transport to state motor vehicle agencies. Paper may again be needed for envelopes to distribute licenses by mail. From the industrial processes to software applications used to manage the entire process, electricity will be consumed, which requires more fuel unless the generation of electricity is from a renewable source.

With a digital driver’s license, the paper version is eliminated, and with it, the resources needed to create, transport, and distribute it. However, there will likely be an increase in the number of software applications or features and internet-connected devices required. As a result, electricity usage will increase, which requires more fuel. To produce more devices, various metals and plastics will be consumed for the device itself. For the industrial manufacturing processes, packaging, and transportation of those devices, water, chemicals, paper, plastic, and fuel will be used.

Digitization reduces some of the non-reusable resources required by a paper process but also demands new ones, so there is a clear trade-off between the two. There must then be some sort of inflection point where the resource reduction is greater than the resource increase. Determining that point is highly process dependent and out of scope for this post, but we can look at current trends to predict its future. 

Three of the biggest cloud providers have made significant environmental commitments: 

  • In 2017, Google reached 100% renewable energy for their data centers and offices1  
  • In 2018, IBM set the goal to purchase 55% percent of its global electricity demand from renewables by 20252 
  • In 2019, Amazon committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 20403  

On the smart device side, Apple aims to “transition to recycled or renewable materials in [their] products”4. In 2018, the company wanted to use 100 percent recycled aluminum and had to develop a new alloy for it to be 100 percent recyclable4.  

No one process – digital or paper – is without any impact to the environment. Digitization saves trees and water, reduces pollution, and cuts down on fuel used by paper, but increases the demand for electricity and devices. The future date when a net positive environmental impact will be achieved from digitization has yet to be determined. Though with many technology companies taking greater action to reduce their environmental impact, there is hope that digitization will win out in the not-so-distant future.

  1. https://www.blog.google/topics/environment/100-percent-renewable-energy/ 
  1. https://www.ibm.com/ibm/environment/climate/renewable_energy.shtml 
  1. https://blog.aboutamazon.com/sustainability/the-climate-pledge 
  1. https://www.apple.com/environment/pdf/Apple_Environmental_Responsibility_Report_2019.pdf