Many of us will remember that first high school English discursive essay assignment and the inevitable and overdone question choice; “paperback or Kindle books?” I pose an adapted question to you; print or read online?
Since COVID-19 and the days of remote learning, most available resources have been lovingly scanned by our library and professors and continue to be available online. This offers a comforting alternative to trekking through the winter rain to the library and awkwardly crawling through the shelves looking for a book that your classmate has definitely checked out already. However, many of us long for the tried and tested study method of flipping pages and hiding our stress-induced meltdowns behind stacks of books. This love has extended to printing online articles to read in paper form.
Within the University of St Andrews’ Sustainability Policies are the Library Regulations and the Acceptable Use of Library Eresources; this details that ‘you can print, or download a single copy of an article or book chapter but should not make multiple copies’. However, in my personal experience, this is not regulated. This means you can print all of your reading for your dissertation, midterm or tutorial, even if that means 2000 pages of reading every week— history students I’m looking at you! But just how much damage is this causing?
The Library and IT Services were unable to share the library’s paper and energy usage, however, global research can give an estimation of the damages. To start at the beginning of the journey of each sheet of paper we print on, an astronomical amount of trees are chopped down. The World Counts reports that from 2001-2019, 386 million hectares of forest have been harvested for wood and 42% of that is used for paper. The manufacturing process uses huge amounts of water and energy - twice that taken to produce a plastic bag according to The World Counts. The problems don't stop when the paper reaches our printers. Without considering the energy required for the printers, the ink cartridges themselves contribute to the 80 million cartridges piled in landfills across the globe, as reported by The Recycler. These cartridges take between 400 and 1000 years to break down while ink and plastic chemicals seep into the ecosystem. After we have finished reading our printed resources, paper finishes its journey by accounting for 26% of total waste at landfills. However, hopefully, they land in the recycling where one tonne of paper saves 1400 litres of oil, 26,500 litres of water and 17 trees than ordinary waste, however, this is still energy that could be saved.
The World Counts estimates that from 2010 to 2060, global paper consumption will double, and so too will paper waste. So should we really be printing resources that we can read online? Reading or visual disabilities aside, I asked students what they thought about printing for preference. To start with those who have not experienced the uphill battle of adding credit to your printing account, one second-year student feels printing should be kept to the minimum and only when it will benefit you to have the physical copy. Similarly, a third-year student did not see a major issue with printing because it helps in information digestion in comparison to reading from a screen. A third-year medic, researching her dissertation, feels paper usage should ideally be limited to important research rather than weekly class reading.
On the other hand, a fourth-year student feels that if printing works for you, then your experience and learning have got to be prioritised for the short time you are at university. A second-year feels that the University makes enough of an effort with its sustainability projects to allow students the ability to use resources like printing. Opinion was generally split amongst everyone I asked but most agreed that, despite the environmental impact, if printing substantially enhances your learning, that should be prioritised.
To take a moment for some self-sabotage, most of you will be reading this article from a classically crafted newspaper lovingly delivered to you by an ink-covered hand. Yes, like class reading, we could be read entirely electronically, however, there are other benefits of printing to consider. During the pandemic, staring at a screen for hours on end has left many longing to return to the good old vintage way. Just like that feeling of a proper book, picking up a real newspaper hopefully adds some wholesome interactions to your “Hangover Thursday” and reminds you that you are actually at St Andrews, an achievement easily forgotten when reading online. While there is no denying that The Saint is involved in the environmental damages from printing as much as library printers, there is something to be said for countering your negatives. Ensuring that we recycle properly, walk as much as possible, and support sustainable projects we can counter the damages of minimal printing and can fully and guiltlessly enjoy your short time at university.