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The Environmental Impact of Electronic Communication

Electronic communication is not without its own environmental impact and its use requires a level of common sense thinking and understanding. Electronic communications will create an impact upon the environment during three basic stages of their life-cycle, some of which are shared with the use of printed materials. These shared impacts are: creation of documents, storage and potentially usage if some of the electronic communication is printed.  

Creation

Electronic communications are necessarily created using computers. These consume energy, but also will have impacts from the materials used to construct IT equipment. The energy consumed has its own environmental impacts, for example greenhouse gas emissions, as will the manufacture of the computer, for example mining. Computers have steadily become more energy efficient and the amount of embodied energy has been reduced, especially through light weighting and the transition to laptops. However, it is important to recognise that the construction of computers does have an impact along with their use and that end of life recycling is critical to reclaiming reusable materials and minimising their environmental impact.

Storage and Dissemination

In order to disseminate electronic communications some form of storage system is required to permit downloads or emails and a transmission system, i.e., the Internet to deliver the communication to the recipient.

This usually involves large server farms, in data centres, which use energy to power the equipment and require cooling to remove the heat their use generates. The Information and Communication Technology (ICT) industry recognise their role in the consumption of energy and the need for taking steps to improve the efficiency of their IT equipment and by using techniques such as virtualisation and novel cooling techniques to reduce their environmental impact. (Greener Computing)

Use

Receiving email or downloading electronic communications will consume energy as it is transferred from the sender's server to your computer and subsequently read on screen. However, electronic media does permit the ready access to relevant sections and the ability to skip through less important ones. If partial or complete printing is performed then some of the benefits of the switch will be reduced.

Minimising Impact

The allocation of materials and energy for any single document will be relatively small and it is the cumulative impact that must be considered.