Data Centers Vs. Paper; Sustainability is Not Easy to Define

Earlier this year I had the privilege of working on the 2012 Sustainability Report for the Local Search Association (LSA). LSA is the support organization for those who produce what we commonly call the Yellow Pages.

I disclose this because although retained to produce a report on the facts, most readers will look at the report’s findings with a skeptical eye. That is good and the reader should do this.

The report found that print directories are not the environmental bogeymen that they are often made out to be around the country. In many locales, there are print directory bans being considered in the name of protecting the environment. Instead of print directories, people are proposing that we use electronic directories. The idea is that we will save energy and resources if we consume less paper.

How many of us receive emails with comments such as “think about the environment before printing this email?” Clearly a good sentiment, we should not print documents that are unnecessary, but is the email a good thing? I mean, how many emails do we actually read? Concurrently, Yellow Pages are a tool that can help people find what they need.

Getting back to the report. In that report I noted that readers should compare the full life cycle analysis of the thing that they are using. In print directories, there is a cycle of resource management. In electronics use, it is less typically a straight line of resource use (although it is getting better).

More importantly, I noted that data centers use more energy than paper manufacturers on a global basis. Some scoffed at this as a self – serving (for my client) finding.

Well, on September 22 of this year, the New York Times started publishing a series of articles that show just how much energy data centers consume and waste. Although their numbers are more current than those used in the LSA 2012 Sustainability Report, the findings support that report’s findings. Specifically, data centers consume very large amounts of power and often waste that power at a rate that is higher than the Recycle Papertotal used in paper manufacturing.

Paper is not necessarily an environmentally damaging product any more than any other product that is used. If a product is sourced responsibly and produced in an energy and environmentally efficient manner, it should not be banned out of fear and misinformation.

Just remember that the next time you turn on your computer, you are not using and environmentally benign product. There are significant environmental consequences from raw materials extraction to energy consumption to think about.

My advice? Go read a book (made from paper or some other recyclable material).

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