You know those email signatures that say, "Please consider the environment before printing this email?" They're actually not the best way to save the environment, at least according to printer giant HP.
On an exceptionally warm afternoon at HP's laboratory in Palo Alto, Calif., this week, Enrique Lores, president of the company's printing business, offered some musings on the correlation between printing and the planet's health.
"Printing by itself is actually a very environmentally friendly technology," he told a group of journalists and industry analysts gathered in a showroom adorned with the colorful byproducts of HP's printers (pictured above). "We have done a lot of work to understand where the paper comes from. It is coming from trees that were planted to become paper. It's not coming from the forest in the Amazon."
According to that line of thinking, using more paper means planting more trees, which means more carbon dioxide will be absorbed, thus making the air cleaner. It's a concept known in the industry as sustainable forestry.
"Contrary to what everyone believes, if we want to see more trees on the planet, what we need to do is print more," Lores concluded.
It's true, at least in theory: the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which certifies the sustainability of forests where HP and other large corporations source their wood, has a consensus of support among industry groups, the scientific community, and environmental NGOs like Greenpeace. To meet the voluntary FSC criteria, forest managers have to demonstrate that their land is ecologically intact and complies with conservation laws, among other criteria.
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But the practice of voluntarily certifying a forest as sustainable also has critics, including one of the FSC's founders, Simon Counsell. He later described the organization as an Enron-like scheme whose certifications are essentially meaningless, hobbled by corrupt inspectors and government officials. Counsell, now the executive director of the UK-based Rainforest Foundation, explained that the best way to save trees is actually to get people to stop printing.
"What is needed is closer government regulation of how forests are used," Counsell said in a 2008 interview. "If the supply of wood products is restricted, prices will increase, and society will find it has less appetite for wasting this valuable resource as it currently does."
In addition to supporting sustainable forests, HP is also stepping up its efforts to recycle ink cartridges, including a new project to buy plastic from discarded bottles in Haiti. As part of the effort, the company will help provide education and job training for the hundreds of children who currently scrounge for recyclable bottles at a landfill near the Haitian capital of Port-Au-Prince.
The dilemma of where their ink cartridges and paper come from might seem like an anachronism to many US families, who increasingly display boarding passes on their smartphones and send their kids to schools that use Minecraft, not textbooks, as an instructional aid.
But HP's print business is growing for the first time since 2011, according to Lores, and it is investing heavily in its consumer division, introducing products like the smartphone-sized Sprocket printer for printing out Instagram photos on the go. If they catch on, the company will need to plant a lot more trees and recycle a lot more bottles.
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