Until now, I’ve taken my class notes the old-fashioned way, scrawling and scribbling on a legal pad. All this talk of tablets and note-taking apps has piqued my interest, but I worry about the environmental impact. How many pages of notes would I have to take before a tablet or laptop would be better for the Earth?
You have to admire paper, a 19-century-old technology that can hold its own against 21st-century computers. The dissimilarity between the two products, however, makes comparing them difficult. The raw materials used to manufacture tablets and those used for paper are so vastly different that they inflict dissimilar damages on the Earth. In addition, tablets are versatile devices, so it’s not clear how much of their embedded energy — the fuel required to manufacture, deliver and dispose of your device — we should attribute to note-taking. Nevertheless, they can serve the same function, so it’s only fair to attempt a comparison.
Let’s start with greenhouse gases, the common denominator in most environmental-impact analysis. If you already own a tablet and you’re thinking about using it as a note-taking device, it’s time to retire your ballpoint. According to data from the Environmental Paper Network, producing a single sheet of paper with no recycled content is responsible for the release of about 0.03 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents into the atmosphere. (A carbon dioxide equivalent is a unit used to express all greenhouse gases, including methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases, in terms of the impact of carbon dioxide.) By contrast, an iPad uses about three watts per hour, which results in the release of 0.004 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents. That means you could take notes on an iPad for more than seven hours before surpassing the greenhouse gas emissions of a single sheet of paper. Unless you write really, really small, or your professors rarely say anything worth writing down, the tablet wins.
Switching to 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper changes the calculus, but not nearly enough to tip the scales. Producing a sheet of recycled paper releases 0.017 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents. Given this figure, you could run the iPad for four hours before surpassing the greenhouse gas emissions of this sheet of paper.
But if you plan on purchasing a tablet for the sole purpose of taking notes, the equation changes.
Using an iPad accounts for less than 30 percent of its lifetime greenhouse gas emissions. Manufacturing (60 percent), transport (10 percent), and end-of-life recycling (1 percent) are responsible for the rest. Apple estimates that, over an iPad’s lifetime, the device will account for 231 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents. (The company doesn’t disclose how many hours of use that includes, only that it assumes “intensive daily use” for three years, which sounds about right for a student with a full course load.) That’s roughly equivalent to the emissions stemming from 7,700 sheets of virgin paper or a whopping 13,600 sheets of 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper.