Does Digital Minimalism Produce More Waste?

cell phone broken

Over the last several years, individuals, businesses, and communities have promoted the idea of living more sustainable. The preservation and repurposing of natural resources has, specifically, shown through “reduce, reuse, recycle” signage, compost bins, and reusable alternatives.

Technology has altered our processes and perceptions with regard to sustainability, however. Organizations now promote the receipt of paperless statements. Individuals opt to send a text or email, rather mailing a letter. Technology has increasingly replaced paper, which is thrown away anyways, you might say. We must ask ourselves, though: does this make digital consumption any more sustainable?

Pushing Back for Print

Digital minimalism involves trimming back on technology usage as much as possible. Individuals who take an analog approach, thus, tend to read, write, and pay bills in print. One Two Sides U.S. educational campaign even debunked “anti-paper” green claims used to promote electronic billing and other e-services as a more environmentally-friendly solution than paper.

Through their campaign, Two Sides made several points in their case for print:

  • Unsubstantiated marketing claims like “Go green, Go Paperless” and “Go Paperless, Save Trees” do not meet guidelines for environmental marketing established by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.
  • Marketing messages like “save trees” create a false impression that forests are a finite resource that is being destroyed. Forests are, rather, a renewable resource continuously replenished using sustainable forest management practices. In the U.S., we grow more trees than we harvest.
  • The life cycle of e-statements is often not paperless because many people print e-statements at home or at the office for record keeping and other uses.

Two Sides found in the same survey that eight in 10 believe cost savings are the driving force behind ‘going paperless.’ Many participants reported they were suspicious of marketing claims that going paperless will ‘save trees’ or ‘protect the environment.’ A study by Forrester Research Inc. substantiated this claim by finding that more than half of customers were still opting for paper statements.

Carbon Impact: Print versus Digital

Whether we extract information in a print or digital format, we are, nonetheless, using resources. We can begin implementing more sustainable approaches into our life, though, by examining the carbon impact of paper and electronic consumption.


Because paper is physically discarded, individuals are quick to believe that by doing away with printed material, they are doing earth a service. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), however, found that for the year of 2018, paper and paperboard had a recycling rate of 68.2%. The American Forest And Paper Association (AFANDPA) corroborates that paper is the nation’s most recyclable commodity.

Many individuals have also migrated from print to digital communications due to deforestation. While significant forest loss has occurred over the last 35 years, a study conducted by University of Maryland, the State University of New York, and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center found this occurrence was more than offset by new forest growth.

Individuals who practice digital minimalism tend to consume more print material than digital media. One article featured an analysis of print books versus eBooks from a carbon footprint standpoint. It concluded how if one reads a limited number of books, the paper book will most likely limit greenhouse gas emissions. For heavy readers, however, eBooks have a smaller carbon footprint. This, more than likely, also depends on additional factors such as whether the book is purchased or borrowed.


Because electronic information is non-tactile, technology gives the illusion that every click, tap, or swipe goes environmentally unpunished. A study conducted by researchers at McMaster University, however, found that the carbon impact of Internet and Communications Industry (ICT) is significant.

This study found that ICT represented 1% of the carbon footprint in 2007 and has practically tripled since 2018. By 2040, the carbon footprint of ITC is projected to exceed 14%. To put this into perspective: that’s half as large as the carbon impact of the entire transportation industry.

McMaster University’s research also found that smartphones with larger screens have a much worse carbon footprint than phones that came prior. Another study came to the same conclusion, finding that the iPhone 6s created 57% more CO2 than the iPhone 4s. On top of that: other research has uncovered that 1% of phone are recycled.

In additional to carbon footprint of manufacturing smartphones, there is also the communication component. One researcher of carbon footprints calculated that a typical business user creates 135kg (298lbs) CO2e from sending emails every year. This is the equivalent of driving 200 miles in a car.

According to energy company OVO, eliminating emails such as “thank you” could collectively save many carbon emissions. It claims that if every adult in the UK sent one less “thank you” email, it could save 16,433 tons of carbon a year – the equivalent of taking 3,334 diesel cars off the road.

Improving Your Carbon Footprint

Based on the current research, it is evident that consuming information print and digitally comes with environmental impacts. Many individuals are convinced that analog approaches create more waste. However, one could argue that technology can produce just as much, especially since device usage has exponentially increased in recent years.

To live more sustainably, consider reducing your electronic communications and upgrades. Conversing with colleagues and friends face-to-face is greener than sending emails and text messages. Keeping an old phone is greener than buying a new one. Rethinking how we technology, even in ways that appear small, could make a large difference overtime.

Decreasing our environment impact also involves consuming and handling tactile resources responsibly. Reduce and reuse materials before properly disposing of them. Eliminate one-use, non-recyclable products whenever possible. Cut back on how many material goods you consume in general. These simple initiatives require very little effort but can certainly add up.

The Case for Digital Minimalism

Digital minimalism produces a material consequence. So does technology. In fact, any action we take creates waste to some extent. It is important that, for this reason, we account for these environmental impacts but extend our understanding further.

Reducing technology usage can benefit the planet. It can also, however, enhance our productivity, creativity, relationships, and mind. So, consider giving a courtesy to yourself, your peers, and the earth by living more analog. Some raw materials will, inevitably, become waste. Careful approaches to digital minimalism, though, can help offset some of these losses and create gains in your own life as well.