At my office, for the last several months, we’ve been in the process of digitizing some old paper files.  It’s not hard work: we pull old files, scan them, then shred the files with the intent of recycling the shreds.

Initially, I was pretty happy to go paperless.  After all, it’s the more eco-conscious option, right?  But as I considered this idea, I found myself wondering about the water footprint for all of the computer equipment that people use every day.  Even digital files take up space, even if it’s just virtual space on a hard drive, and as my office had to consider buying extra hard drives to ensure we’d have enough space, I found myself second-guessing whether a digital office was actually all that greener than a paper office, at least in terms of virtual water.  So, let’s crunch some numbers.

A quick note: with temporary files that are meant to be deleted quickly (things like shopping lists, emails, blurry photos, etc.), digital is always better than paper.  That’s because every single piece of paper you print needs, well, a piece of paper, while data you delete will be overwritten with new data later.  Even if you recycle paper, a large amount of water is still used in the recycling process, although less than that used for “new” paper. 

A single sheet of paper needs over three gallons of water to produce.   By comparison, a microchip takes roughly 4200 gallons of water.  Your average computer has between 18 and 36 microchips and can store anywhere from ½ to 2 gigabytes – or, a little over 111 megabytes per microchip. That, in turn, breaks down to a little under 38 gallons of water per megabyte of storage.  So, how much is that?

If we’re talking text, and we’re assuming we’re looking at a double-spaced document with a common font in a normal size (between 10 and 12 point), you can fit about 500 pages in one megabyte.   500 printed pages would mean a cost of 1500 gallons – so here, the digital storage wins.

What about photos?  Unfortunatley, a megabite will only hold about four low-res pictures -clearly a situation where the printed page wins out, especially if you print your four photos to a single page.  The higher resolution the picture, the more space it takes up on your hard drive, and the better the savings are in the physical realm.

Ultimatley, there are a lot of environmental benefits to going digital that aren’t included in the virtual water footrprint: it reduces waste, requires less production of physical objects, and allows for the creation of infinite copies of an item without needing you to make more products.  However, when you’re considering buying that extra hard drive or upgrading to the new phone, ask yourself if the virtual water footprint is really worth the sharper graphics or slightly faster processor.

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