16.4 Environmental impacts from digital solutions as alternative to conventional paper solutions

Anders Schmidt , Applied Environmental Assessment, FORCE Technology, Lyngby, Denmark
Nanja Hedal Kløverpris , Applied Environmental Assessment, FORCE Technology, Lyngby, Denmark


Digital solutions are becoming an integral part of our communication with companies, institutions and regulatory bodies. Documents which hitherto have been printed on paper and distributed by ordinary mail are now distributed in an electronic format with the possibility of reading them on-line for decades if so desired.

In a study for the Danish company e-Boks, the environmental impacts from distribution of documents by ordinary mail (“the conventional system”) have been compared to those of electronic distribution of the same information.

The basic elements in the two systems are outlined in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Basic elements of the systems for distribution of information

System boundaries

In the electronic system, e-Boks receives an electronic document from its client, e.g. a bank, and stores it on its servers. An e-mail is sent to the customer announcing that a new document is available. The customer can then log on to e-Boks and retrieve the document whenever desired. The document will remain stored on the server until the customer dies (or deletes the document), and there is thus no immediate need to make a physical copy. The environmental impacts are therefore primarily related to the consumption of electricity for storage of the documents, transmission/distribution of the documents by internet service providers and for the customers' examination of the documents. However, some users may chose to print their documents, and therefore the use of paper is also considered in the electronic system.

The study will reflect the consequences of shifting from conventional to electronic distribution, and therefore a consequential LCA approach is used. As an example the production of the PC used by e-Boks' customers is not included, the argument being that private customers will not purchase a PC with the primary purpose of being able to access e-Boks at home. In contrast to this, e-Boks needs to invest in servers in order to maintain the service. Accordingly, the environmental impacts from production of servers are included in the assessment.

For the conventional system, the consequential approach implies that the study only includes the changes caused by not sending a letter. In practice this means for example that the use of fuels for heating the post offices does not change due to a reduced amount of letters. The amount of fuels used for distribution of letters will, however, decrease. In 2008, more than 100 million documents were distributed electronically via e-Boks, and it is evident that this has decreased the demand for transport of letters by truck. Another element in the consequential approach is that the paper used in the systems at one point will be disposed of by the user. It is either incinerated with energy recovery, substituting production of electricity from coal, or recycled, substituting production of virgin paper. In both cases, the system benefits from the end-of-life treatment.

Many other issues are considered, e.g. the source of electricity used in either system and how much energy is needed for domestic use of IT equipment. The presentation will address some of the most interesting aspects.

Impact assessment

Impact assessment is primarily made using the Danish EDIP methodology, which is internationally recognised. Compared to the full methodology, some simplifications are made. Most notably, the impact categories addressed are limited to the following global and regional impacts:

·         Global Warming Potential (GWP) (using the most recent update of the CML 2001 method)

·         Acidification Potential (AP)

·         Nutrification Potential (also called Eutrophication Potential, EP)

·         Photochemical Ozone Creation Potential (POCP)

·         Consumption of energy (measured in MJ), distinguishing between renewable and non-renewable energy

·         Consumption of energy resources, focusing on natural gas, coal and crude oil

Local environmental impacts like human toxicity and ecotoxicity are only addressed to a minor extent as is the case for assessment of waste. The local environmental impacts are omitted because they can only be managed with a high degree of uncertainty, because of a relatively poor data quality and missing data. End-of-life (recycling and incineration) of paper is included in the model, and waste is therefore not included as an impact category.


The study is expected to be concluded in May 2009, and it is thus not possible to present the results in this abstract.