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Are dead-tree magazines good or bad for the climate?
December 29, 2007 10:12 PM   Subscribe

"So by this analysis dead-tree magazines have a smaller net carbon footprint than web media. We cut down trees and put them in the ground. From a climate change perspective, this is a good thing" explains Chris Anderson, Wired Magazine's editor-in-chief. While some decry this type of carbon footprint accounting as "cheating", the paper industry has lately been eager to convince the public that they are carbon-neutral.
posted by finite (36 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
From what I understand, forests don't really remove carbon from the air, because when the trees die, they rot, and the carbon is released back into the atmosphere. But planting new trees seems like it would actually remove CO2 from the air.

And, if you plant new trees every year, and do not burn or let the wood decompose (by turning it into paper) it seems like it would actually remove CO2 from the air. But it's also possible that other processes along the way might make things worse. Like if a mill was powered by a coal mine. Anderson says they're powered by hydroelectric, but does he really know?

Anderson's "analysis" was particularly silly. He just makes stuff and says "well, obviously this is less then that" but unless you can put real numbers with what you say, it's all a bunch of wankery.
posted by delmoi at 10:31 PM on December 29, 2007


The notion that the carbon* footprint of delivering magazines can be dismissed because the postal service would be running the same routes regardless is fallacious. The same logic could be used for all mail and would result in attribution of the carbon impact to no one. The carbon footprint should be attributed proportionally according to the percentage of total mail load of delivering the magazine. The argument that "all are readers are OH so smart and responsible and ALWAYS recycle and dispose of waste properly" is also some masturbatory bullshit.

That said, it's an interesting argument and it's a reminder that just because something generates no immediate tangible waste doesn't mean it isn't doing significant environment damage.

*This is a dumb term. Someone needs to come up with a better one.
posted by christonabike at 10:35 PM on December 29, 2007 [1 favorite]


"...it's all a bunch of wankery."

Welcome to Chris Anderson.
posted by heeeraldo at 10:36 PM on December 29, 2007


I've just spent a considerable amount of time this year overseeing the development of an eco-verification application for the paper industry.

The "carbon footprint" of paper products has very little to do with how environmentally friendly the creation of that paper is, for example, what type of bleach has the mill used to made that recycled paper white? As Chris Anderson points out "Mills are generally on rivers...", which could potentially mean bleach runoff into said river.
posted by X-00 at 10:46 PM on December 29, 2007


"5. Subscribers read (relish!) the magazines, and then throw them out. Since our readers tend to be upper middle-class urban and suburban dwellers, they're almost certainly either recycling the paper or it's being properly landfilled. In either case, the carbon is sequestered, which is to say it doesn't get back in the atmosphere. Carbon neutral"

This sounds an awful lot like "Hey, we think this could be the case, so we will just claim that it is." I'm not doubting they've done proper demographic research, but you lose your footing a bit once you start treating their segments as broad generalities.

"since they're newspapers, they have to do their own daily distribution at significant carbon cost, while we ride along with normal postal delivery."

Maybe they haven't read the news lately. Even those little mailers can cause problems and do cost money to ship. It takes inputs of energy and manpower to move mail. This is why it isn't free.
posted by ninjew at 10:49 PM on December 29, 2007


I wonder how much of the postal service's budget goes to fossil fuels. That is basically the percentage of WIRED's postage that is directly carbon bad. They know how much their own postage is!

I bet it would be possible to actually find out how much of your postage went toward ruining the planet.
posted by aubilenon at 11:15 PM on December 29, 2007


What's funny is that I heard someone argue not too long ago that trash-to-energy plants were "carbon neutral" for not totally dissimilar reasons. They basically blamed the carbon footprint on the producers of the goods while saying that they were neutral.

It's just a lot of buck-passing wankery. "Carbon neutral" is rapidly being redefined into meaninglessness, since there's no universally accepted way of measuring it. It's pretty easy to push your 'carbon footprint' off on somebody else in the chain, or say that it's a sunk cost that would occur with or without you and thus isn't your fault, etc. etc.

By Wired's definition, the landfills ought to be making a fortune by selling carbon-offset credits for all the "sequestering" they're doing. That's exactly what we need -- more dumps!
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:24 PM on December 29, 2007 [2 favorites]


The same Wired that's such a slave to their advertisers, and gadget-hocking over-consumption in general?

Never!
posted by birdie birdington at 12:04 AM on December 30, 2007


This is the best trick I've ever heard in the history of their bitch-ass tricks.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 12:04 AM on December 30, 2007


This sounds like all those potato chip bags I see that say "Zero Transfats!" Or the hard candy bags that say "No Fat!"

Yeah, but...
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:12 AM on December 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


Computers and cellphones and other web media delivery devices are pretty much complete environmental horrors.
posted by chlorus at 12:21 AM on December 30, 2007


I wonder how much of the postal service's budget goes to fossil fuels. That is basically the percentage of WIRED's postage that is directly carbon bad. They know how much their own postage is!


Except for the fossil fuels used in the delivery of the fossil fuels. And the coking coal that consumed in the smelter where the the iron ore that becomes the steel in the mail trucks is processed. And the diesel used to ship the ore from the mine to the mill. And the coal used to build the aforementioned ship. And the fuel that got the shipbuilders and millworkers to their job. et cetera.
posted by Kwantsar at 12:34 AM on December 30, 2007


I think most people are taking this a bit too seriously. It's a thought experiment, thinking out loud. Most people automatically (and without thinking) assume the web is greener than paper. Whether it is or not, there's nothing wrong with challenging this position.
posted by rhymer at 12:43 AM on December 30, 2007


This whole carbon off-setting thing is a pretty dumb idea who transparency has not been proven. I would love to see Wired and Chris Anderson blow the lid off this phony industry.
posted by parmanparman at 1:12 AM on December 30, 2007


wood and wood-based products are much closer to carbon neutral than their competitors - within a sector (eg timber house frames versus concrete). Responsible forestry, such as practices in most of the western world, sucks carbon from the atmosphere. But these sorts of comparisons between web and dead tree are impossible to do accurately and are basically guesses.
posted by wilful at 2:06 AM on December 30, 2007


This is a dumb term. Someone needs to come up with a better one.

The bad gas!
posted by Serial Killer Slumber Party at 4:28 AM on December 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'm peeved that the neologism 'dead-tree something' is even used. If you want to ethically challenge paper products, that name is the most misguided way of doing it, trying to paint as bad what is good about paper: that it is made from extremely renewable and natural resource, wood, while missing the bad aspect: making paper takes lots of energy. I see that this article is some kind of backlash, but how could have people used the term seriously in the first place? 'Paper is made from dead trees' is a revelation for a nine year old, or for someone with internet bubble seriously clogging blood flow in the brain.
posted by Free word order! at 5:29 AM on December 30, 2007


Magazines are not carbon neutral they're carbon liberal elite.
posted by srboisvert at 5:46 AM on December 30, 2007


Congeneration power plants that burn wood waste or even garbage bound for landfills to create electricity are considered 'net carbon neutral', and are therefore 'green technologies.' Heh.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:12 AM on December 30, 2007


The calculations left out the impact of the plastic bag the magazine gets mailed in.
posted by hoppytoad at 6:51 AM on December 30, 2007


Dead-tree is one of my favorite dysphemisms. It's so deliciously stupid and unnecessary.
posted by aerotive at 6:54 AM on December 30, 2007


Dead-tree is one of my favorite dysphemisms. It's so deliciously stupid and unnecessary.
posted by WPW at 7:02 AM on December 30, 2007


Ooops, pressed "post", not "italics". I wanted to say "I agree". It's like calling mostly plastic computers "dead prehistoric sea creature machines".
posted by WPW at 7:03 AM on December 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


Actually, dead-tree is descriptive, because there are far more efficient and less destructive sources for cellulose fiber than periodically clearcut pine tree monoculture forests. Pine trees aren't harvested for paper because they're the best source, but because the risk is lower and the return is better than letting them grow high enough to produce good quality dimensional lumber. The whole thing is coasting on a lot of infrastructure which was diverted from lumber production to paper production because of this, but it would all be a lot more eco-friendly if we just went to a place where the climate is more appropriate and planted hemp, and let the forests grow long enough to provide rotten trees for the woodpeckers to nest in.
posted by localroger at 8:00 AM on December 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


I can't believe that Anderson is blithely claiming that the process of harvesting trees and making pulp is carbon neutral. He clearly has never seen any actual forestry.

From surveying to road building, harvesting, processing, transporting, sorting, chipping, and replanting, forestry consumes an immense amount of diesel fuel. It is not even close to carbon neutral. Not to mention that a fairly good proportion of the total mass of wood cut gets left as slash to be burned in a big smoldering fire.

Pulp mills are generally on rivers, but that doesn't mean they operate on hydroelectric power (you can't just throw a turbine on any bit of moving water you find). At least in BC, they usually operate on heat and steam generated by burning wood.
posted by ssg at 9:21 AM on December 30, 2007


He links to a paper from the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden which concludes that paper is better than electronic. But if you look at that paper, that conclusion holds only at 30 min of reading time per day; if you switch to 10 min per day, web-based is much better. This suggested to me that their results were strongly influenced by the cost of electricity. And if you look and see what they've chosen for a PC model, it's a 160W PC from 2002, including a 120W screen (see pg 24 of the study). A more realistic figure for a modern PC is 60W. So the whole report seems worthless to me because of one faulty assumption. I wonder how the numbers look if you re-do it with a more accurate number?

(With that said, they've assumed a 5-year lifetime when calculated fixed costs due to manufacturing the PC, and that figure is out of date too. It's more like 3 years now. So the whole thing is rather uncertain.)
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:54 AM on December 30, 2007


I couldn't resist posting my above comment on the site itself. I hate to see bad figures get thrown unchallenged.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:04 PM on December 30, 2007


Shades of the Lumber Cartel.
posted by dhartung at 2:35 PM on December 30, 2007


ssg: "I can't believe that Anderson is blithely claiming that the process of harvesting trees and making pulp is carbon neutral. He clearly has never seen any actual forestry.

From surveying to road building, harvesting, processing, transporting, sorting, chipping, and replanting, forestry consumes an immense amount of diesel fuel. It is not even close to carbon neutral. Not to mention that a fairly good proportion of the total mass of wood cut gets left as slash to be burned in a big smoldering fire.
"

...and are you claiming that the pollution/CO2 generated by the computers, networking hardware, cables, servers, co-location facilities and everything else that goes into web media is somehow better? The process of fabbing circuit boards, integrated circuits and capacitors is quite far from green, and these components have to make it all the way over to BC somehow, which consumes diesel. The co-location facilities for the servers of the web media use a lot of power, possibly generated by coal power, plus all of the diesel fuel that was used in its construction. also the power used by your PC/monitor, the power the ISP uses to send you the bits of the web media, et cetera. And I'm sure a lot of pollution was involved in laying the cables to get you your internet connection (and those cables could be on poles made of wood, netting you all of that evil forestry pollution).

PercussivePaul"And if you look and see what they've chosen for a PC model, it's a 160W PC from 2002, including a 120W screen (see pg 24 of the study). A more realistic figure for a modern PC is 60W. So the whole report seems worthless to me because of one faulty assumption. I wonder how the numbers look if you re-do it with a more accurate number?"

It's really too bad that these researchers didn't consult with you or the random guy that wrote that article for microsoft before publishing their findings. I have no idea what the specs of the "standard PC" used by either the Swedish researchers or the Dell study in that microsoft article, but from my own observations as a PC repair tech, most computers out there seem to be somewhat old P4 2.4GHz Dells. considering how power hungry these P4-based systems seem to be, in addition to the fact that they probably put a lot more rigor into their study than dell's study or your post (no offense), I am inclined to side more with the Swedish study's numbers.


Regardless of all that though, this whole idea of the article in the FPP and the ensuing discussion is kind of ridiculous. its really easy to just continue cycling backwards until you include the whole of human pollution into whatever activity you are trying to disparage. The movement towards reducing environmental impact isn't going to get anywhere if people turn it into some sort of "see we're more green!" dick-waving contest.
posted by grandsham at 4:14 PM on December 30, 2007


grandsham: Obviously, computers have a lot of carbon emissions linked to them. My point is that Anderson is cherry picking the emissions he wants to include or ignore (including some very significant emissions from the forestry and pulp industries) in order to reach the conclusion that he wants.

I agree completely that the article is ridiculous, however I think that pursuing the idea behind it (to quantify the greenhouse gas emissions that result from our actions) is one of the most important things we can do right now. Sure, there are a lot of obvious changes that we can make that will cause big reductions in our emissions, but there are probably a lot of reductions to be achieved quite easily once we have the data available (and of course that pesky desire to change). Modern business will analyze their supply chain to death to save half a cent per unit, but generally there is no impetus to analyze the supply chain for carbon emissions. This sort of thing can turn into a ugly greener-than-thou mess, but it doesn't have to and that doesn't mean we should give up on a data-driven approach. Throwing up your hands because someone might cycle backwards too far and include too much pollution isn't a good option. We just have to do better than this sort of hand-waving, foregone-conclusion article does.
posted by ssg at 5:00 PM on December 30, 2007


I agree completely that the article is ridiculous, however I think that pursuing the idea behind it (to quantify the greenhouse gas emissions that result from our actions) is one of the most important things we can do right now. Sure, there are a lot of obvious changes that we can make that will cause big reductions in our emissions, but there are probably a lot of reductions to be achieved quite easily once we have the data available (and of course that pesky desire to change).

With a carbon tax, you get the result you want, without needing to "quantify" anything.
posted by Kwantsar at 5:08 PM on December 30, 2007


It's a fair point, grandsham, but I think I have raised a fair criticism. If they want to claim a lifetime of five years, then a 2002 PC does not represent the average PC they are trying to model. Likewise they claim 120W for the monitor but the only way you'd get that is if you used a CRT. There's no way a flat panel would burn 120W. Not to mention, a lot of people use laptops. I see no breakdown or explanation of where the power numbers come from and I can't go to their original sources because it looks like they're in Swedish! I don't claim that the numbers are not rigorous, only outdated. With PC's this is a big deal as power figures have improved a fair bit in recent years.

Along your second point, grandsham, I understand what you're saying but would there not be value in knowing that activity X is greener than activity Y, so that those who want to reduce their impact know which activities to pursue? I mean, the analysis can often be sloppy but what other option is there?
posted by PercussivePaul at 5:17 PM on December 30, 2007


It is laughable that a magazine with the name 'wired' would believe its subscribers do not also own computers and surf the internet a large amount of time already, not to mentioned wired magazine also has a website. So even if you accept the conclusion that print media produces less carbon emissions than web media Wired uses both print and web media and therefore is worse than either alone.
posted by Green With You at 6:37 PM on December 30, 2007


I wrote that before reading the F'in article, but I think it still stands.
posted by Green With You at 6:42 PM on December 30, 2007


Kwanstar: I'm a big carbon tax supporter, but we aren't likely to get a carbon tax in the Canada or the US anytime soon, so at least quantifying things will give us the information. We'll probably have to work out some sort of system to measure the emissions associated with imported items if we do adopt a carbon tax, because we aren't going to get a worldwide tax (at least not in any sort of reasonably near future). So let's be optimists and call this sort of analysis (though not this particular analysis) a step towards carbon taxation.
posted by ssg at 6:54 PM on December 30, 2007


localroger: Actually, dead-tree is descriptive, because ...

All of what you say about the sourcing of paper for magazines is true, and in the UK the recycled content of magazine paper is something like 2% industry-wide, which is deplorably low (although after-life recycling is quite good, something like 50%, with the PPA aiming at 75% I think). It can and should be much higher.

But "dead tree" is not descriptive, because it's not intended as a description of the material or production of magazines, it's intended as a way of denigrating their relevance and the necessity and/or quality of their content. It's meant to paint a picture of magazines as lumbering, obsolete shirehorses in an internal combustion age. Which is untrue. I've worked for eight years in magazines, equal measures in inky trade and glossy consumer titles. It's a tough time for both ends of the industry, and overall sales are falling after a long expansion, some big groups are in trouble (notably EMAP). This sectoral recession is partly cyclical, partly demographic (I've been told), partly to do with shifts in consumer habits unrelated to the new media, and significantly thanks to the new media. But the industry is going to survive without drastic shrinkage because:

1. In B2B publishing, people still trust print magazines over websites
2. In consumer publishing, magazines are luxury items and always have been. People don't just buy them to consume information. (Oddly, the same goes for B2B, a bit.)

I know that I have skin in the game on the pulp side, and that I'm among new-media junkies here, and I want to be clear that I'm not attempting to say that magazines are superior to the new media or that the internet is a passing fad. The internet will dwarf magazines as a sector soon if it doesn't already, and magazine publishing will change and adapt. But my point is that "dead tree" is meant to denigrate periodical publishing of all kinds as being obsolete, and it really isn't. Print media, magazines, do things that computers and the new media do not, cannot, and should not. "Dead tree" is irrelevant to describing what print publishing does, just as "dead prehistoric sea-creature and stripmine devices" is irrelevant to describing what computers do. They are both facile jibes.
posted by WPW at 7:53 PM on December 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


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