Question for the hivemind.

Which has a larger carbon footprint:

An office that uses a photocopier or an office that uses carbon paper?

How much difference does it make if you're using the carbon paper in an electric typewriter as opposed to a manual one?

How much less is the environmental impact from being able to proofread on the screen before printing out and making your copies (which I'm assuming is itself lower impact than printing multiple copies ... but maybe I'm wrong)?

How do we pin down the relevant impacts of the manufacture of the computer and printer and photocopier compared to those of the manufacture of the typewriter and carbon paper?

And what of dittos?

(You young people will need to do a little research to figure out what the heck I'm talking about. Perhaps on your way to doing it you can get offa my lawn!)

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I wonder about these things fairly regularly. Which of the many available options for things is the most "environmentally responsible"? And who decides such things?

My vote would probably be paper in a typewriter was was better for the environment. paper is a renewable resource, if managed properly, it is pretty straightforward to harvest paper responsibly. Just about everything that is inside of this little plastic-lined box of rare metals that I am using to write this comment is not at all 'environmentally responsible'. That said, I will continue to use my computer to read your blog...

One that has gotten me for a while is the option of using a paper plate vs. using a plastic reusable plate at restaurants... In one case you are using trees to create a (possibly) biodegradable renewable resource (paper) and on the other you are using a non-biodegradable oil-based product that can be used many times, but will be thrown away at some point. I tend to thing that the paper plate option (if it is a biodegradable version - ie not plastic lined) is better than using the plastic. But what about the fact that the plastic plates are already in use and will be used regardless of whether or not you yourself are using it... ahh .. the vicious loop of questions surrounding these issues....

Ah... the trials that come with trying to be 'environmentally responsible'...

"How do we pin down the relevant impacts of the manufacture of the computer and printer and photocopier compared to those of the manufacture of the typewriter and carbon paper?"

theoretically the 'carbon impact' is already measured by the price that the consumer pays when they buy the typewriter or copier. every participant in the supply chain, from the iron mine to the shipping company to the factory and its workers to the retailer, will need to use energy to do their job. They pay an energy company for that energy, then pass on the cost to the person 'downstream' on the supply chain. Ultimately, when you go into Office Depot and buy a copier or typewriter, a certain amount of that sticker price is going to pay for all the energy used in the manufacture of the product. And since the 'CO2 footprint' of a product comes mostly from the energy used to make it and ship it, the 'energy footprint' is basically the 'CO2 footprint'. So if something costs less, it theoretically took less energy to make it, and thus it has a lower CO2 footprint.

The problem is when you have distorted prices, IE in China, they dont have to pay the 'real cost' of energy production, with all the slave labor and pollution-dumping and subsidies and distorted currency and everything else. You can get arrested there for posting a blog, so what would happen if you tried to calculate carbon footprints of a factory part owned by the Red Army? Until China can get environmental and labor laws and human rights laws, and be like a civilized country, we will never know the carbon footprint of anything that comes out of it.

oops i meant the People's Liberation Army, not the Red Army.

Unquestionably the electric typewriter + carbon-paper and/or dittos is lower carbon-impact than the computer + printer.

Sure, in theory you could carefully proofread before printing, but people don't. (I work in the tech support department of a college of business, and one of our jobs is to distribute print cartridges and paper as needed. One might conclude that people get a little shot of orgasmic pleasure from clicking "print". The usage is truly staggering, and it all winds up in the recycle.)

To kick off this post, I present to you some humor about which I would never had known if it had not been for my eldest son. In a recent episode of the cartoon "Phineas and Ferb" the evil scientist builds a device to increase his "carbon footprint" by stamping a giant foot made entirely of carbon paper across the land. Hilarity ensues.
(Evil scientist stuff starts at about the 2:40 point)

And how do both compare to the office that uses monks to copy everything in script with illuminations? Carbon paper isn't that far removed from that, and has about the same chance of being used. Get real.

Way too young for the typewriter conundrum... got my first computer when I was four.

But! I'm actually working on a story like this right now. With Kindles and newspapers instead of typewriters and computers.... same idea I suppose?

For anyone lucky enough to have journal access, a good paper to check out is:

Screening environmental life cycle assessment of printed, internet-based and tablet e-paper newspaper, Environmental Impact Assessment Review, Moberg yr:2007 vol:34 pg:419 -429


Carbon paper has lower impact, because after the first time using it you'll give up in frustration and give oral exams instead.

(I took grade school exams in the mimeograph era. I notice I still sort of perk up mentally if I see purple typewriting. Some kind of adaptive threat reaction, I think.)

"get offa my lawn!"

While you're at it, tell 'em to stop playing their crappy music so loud.


I still have an old-school non-electric typewriter in the basement. The chance of me ever using it again? 0% I would love to smell some mimeograph paper again though, been wondering if there's a nostalgia market for a mimeograph candle (it would be that lovely purple shade). I think the heart of this problem really lies in the fact that nowadays we're replacing the use of a relatively renewable resource (paper) with increased use of electricity, which is being produced in many non-renewable ways.

By Rob Monkey (not verified) on 08 Mar 2010 #permalink

Hey Rob-Monkey - I'll pay shipping to take that typewriter off your hands!

Actually, the amount of paper used would probably be greater using the manual (or electric) typewriter. At least a part of copyediting is done in silico now - reducing the number of printed copies, but with a typewriter, you would need to retype multiple pages - especially for a major revision.

Carbon-copies only work so far - it's hard to get more than about 6 at a time. Then you go to ditto's (mmm - that old-school butanol smell!) And a typewriter uses its own fair amount of resources in being produced, so I'd be willing to bet that they are about even overall.

George W says "Sure, in theory you could carefully proofread before printing, but people don't.", which means they get to retype it - using the same amount of paper again...

With a manual typewriter, you *can't* proofread before printing - some people do (even if many don't) with computers, so - reduced paper usage. (BTW - you might add a quota to your student's accounts on how much paper they can use - make them pay by the page after (say) 500, and they'll reduce their printing!)

I recommend an exploration of the history of xerography. This is a technology that almost didn't get commercialized, because the marketers at Xerox had a hard time imagining how it would be used. They initially thought of it as a simple "replacement" for existing duplicating systems like carbon paper and mimeography, and weren't impressed by the size of that market. It didn't occur to them that making copying clean and easy would result in a huge increase in the absolute numbers of copies being made. The advent of photocopying was bad, bad news for the forests of the world.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 08 Mar 2010 #permalink

Padraig is right. Carbon paper has the lowest foot print of all. Once it's made, nothing more happens with it, everyone is using the copier.

By Mylasticus (not verified) on 08 Mar 2010 #permalink

This seems like an incomplete word-problem to me; it's trying to work out the costs of document production and reproduction with several technologies, but that's only the numerator. We also need to know the denominator, some measure of work-done or knowledge-transmitted. But that is often subjective, and is even more vulnerable to new technologies changing what we want than the numerator was.

The older technologies were almost certainly lower cost in materials and fossil energy per page, because those things were more expensive. But, correspondingly, typing and mimeographing depended on skilled, low-paid clerks and secretaries to get everything done.

Since I'm imagining being a child and sniffing ditto fluid, I'll ask:

Who has a lesser transportation carbon footprint: the person (in suburbia) with a new hybrid vehicle, who commutes to work and blithely makes additional trips (shopping, grandma, whatever) at various other times of day, evening, or weekend, or the person with a 12-year-old middling-fuel-efficient car, who can barely afford it, skimps on oil changes, and needs to fill the gas tank 3, maybe 4, times a year?

For printing, I'd imagine the most resource efficient, albeit only scalable to a moderate sized to large office, would be laser printer, where access to the printer was controlled by a very crabby operator, thus throttling casual use.

By Uncle Glenny (not verified) on 08 Mar 2010 #permalink

Hey Eric, sorry, had to do some of that "work" crap I hear so much about ;) If you really would want it, drop me a line at robshaw81_at_gmail_dot_com, I'll weigh it up and give you an idea how much it might cost to ship it (it's in its own snazzy metal briefcase so you can carry your giant anachronism when you travel!)

Chloe, you make a good point about the efficiency of technology, although my brain couldn't help but dredge up that Onion classic "Internet stoppage causes mass productivity."

By Rob Monkey (not verified) on 09 Mar 2010 #permalink

I think -- having used many of these technologies over the years, that office paper is probably used more now than previously.

In a world where you can't proofread before printing, you have to think through what you are typing. So you get fewer iterations.

On a manual typewriter, the only power cost is you. No electricity = no coal usage (well, a little for the light you type by). It's worth saying that there is a difference between a manual typewriter, which uses no electricity once made, and an electric one, which might use 20 watts but only be on for a few hours at a time, and a computer, which uses 20 or so watts (more or less, depending on what you do) and is on all the time.

I'd bet the manual typewriter is lowest use, obviously, as the energy cost in it is one-time only.

Paper is a bit more difficult to measure, but using carbon sheets still would cut down the number of copies made I think as it only allows a few at a time.

Laser printers don't strike me as terribly efficient as they encourage reams per hour usage. Plus they use electricity constantly. Now, I come at this from journalism where the advent of the computer certainly made for less paper usage in some respects. But it seems offset by more in others. You still have to print out stuff to proofread -- I have met very few people who do a good job of it on-screen, no matter how proficient they are with the technology.

My vote is that a modern. computer based office, with hundreds of constantly on computers, is a hell of a lot more resource-intensive than even a carbon- or ditto-mad manual typewriter office would be.

After all, no rare earth metals are needed (with the associated transit costs) to make a typewriter.

I think one thing people forget is that while we make more efficient use of energy in terms of productivity per person, we use a hell of a lot more of it as well as living standards rise. A guy in the 1970s who had no cell phone or computer is by definition using less energy -- but when you walk around with a laptop and a phone you are carrying with you a load of carbon footprint right there. Transport of goods generally increases the carbon footprint -- it takes a lot of oil to move that pair of jeans you wear from India to here in the US, but I bet you didn't pay nearly so much for them.

The price doesn't begin to reflect carbon footprint because there is no way for markets to transmit that information, and it is an 'externality.'

For instance, prior to the clean air act pumping a gazillion tons of particulates in to the air -- some very toxic, wasn't even considered a bad thing, because there was no cost to doing it. Nor was there any cost to letting workers die in hazardous jobs (unless there is a serious labor shortage, a condition that is really, really rare). It's only recently that we even started measuring this stuff at all. Again, think of your cell phone: relatively cheap but the $100 or so doesn't begin to cover the cost of maintaining the landfill it will be in for the next 1,000 years.

And passing laws about pollution, labor and all that was most assuredly not driven by market forces. They were driven by people who said markets were a poor way to decide such things. Remember that the structure of markets isn't like physics, it's what the participants agree on (that's why we no longer have a market for slaves. Obviously people were willing to buy them. That doesn't make it a good idea, so we have agreed, as a society, that it is wrong to buy and sell people).

Sorry to ramble, but it is an interesting question you posed.