Regardless of whether we see a gorgeous tablet from Apple on Wednesday, there is a clear trend toward using electronic devices to read what has traditionally been printed media. From an environmental point of view, that shift is a mixed bag, depending as much on user behavior as on technology.
According to reports, Apple will show off a tablet PC that can be used with a docking station or an electronic reader.
Displacing printing media with an electronic device like the Amazon Kindle can reduce the amount of energy associated with cutting down trees and making physical periodicals and books, according to some studies.
But without electronics recycling, the environmental footprint is not good. After all, tossing an old newspaper into the recycling bin is a lot easier and common than recycling electronics, for which the U.S. rate is estimated at about 10 percent.
As with many environmental questions, the more you ask, the more complicated it becomes. But here are some considerations:
Who makes the box?
Apple has caught heat from watchdog groups in the past, but its current products are state of the art, when it comes to energy efficiency and materials. In its latest products, Apple has phased out the use of PVC plastic and hazardous brominated flame retardants, so it would be surprising if it didn't continue this policy with new hardware.
Presumably, people will be running their Apple tablets off the batteries more than a laptop or desktop PC. Batteries will, of course, degrade and need to be replaced after a few years. Apple says its laptop batteries last longer than others, and it offers a take-back program to replace batteries, so it gets high marks from environmental groups on that score.
On the other hand, after a few years, many people are likely to buy something new, rather than send in a device to upgrade the batteries, which ultimately creates more e-waste.
Pixels versus paper.
Intuitively, it seems that reducing paper by using an electronic device will consume less energy than harvesting trees, processing pulp, printing newspaper, and delivering it to your doorstep. But making a blanket conclusion about energy use through electronic communication is not easy.
The Center for Sustainable Communications in Stockholm, Sweden, conducted a study concluding that reading a newspaper on a PC for 30 minutes results in about the same carbon dioxide emissions as a printed newspaper. (Click for PDF of study.) And as a device that's smaller than a PC, the rumored Apple tablet should consume less energy.
Paper company International Paper goes even further to point out that the paper-and-pulp industry uses resources (trees) that can be managed sustainably, and recycling rates are far higher in the paper industry than electronics.
The efficiency of any tablet or e-reader is certainly worth a comparison with laptops and similarly sized devices. Amazon's Kindle, for example, uses E Ink technology, which is significantly more power-efficient than an LCD screen, for example.
But looking at how much energy a device consumes when in the hands of the end user isn't the full story, notes Casey Harrell, a coordinator for Greenpeace's global electronics campaign. About half of the energy "embedded" in an electronics product comes from the supply chain of companies that supply Apple or other manufacturers, he said.
What's more, as more and more smartphones and tablets are released, the energy consumption shifts toward data centers to which those gadgets connect. "A tablet can certainly mark a decrease in the environmental footprint versus traditional printing, but the big question is, what energy is powering these data centers in the cloud?" Harrell said.
How the gadget is used.
Apple may make an item worth keeping for five years--a long time in the frenzied pace of consumer electronics. But if the buyer replaces it within a year, then that also adds to the e-waste stream. The same is true if customers don't take advantage of recycling services.
Overall, an Apple tablet, or the host of electronic readers expected this year, can bring many benefits of digitized content and even change how we read, day to day. Whether it brings a net environmental benefit, though, has more to do with the owner than the device.