Science Questions

Is sending an e-card environmentally friendly?

Sun, 6th Feb 2011

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Dirk, Australia asked:

Is sending an e-card more environmentally friendly than sending one made from trees?


We put this to Dr Andy Rice, a Computer Scientist at the University of Cambridge, and Professor David MacKay, Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department for Energy and Climate Change...

Andy Rice -  I think this is quite a good question and what you need to think about is something called "lifecycle assessment".  This is basically an idea of trying to think about all the different stages in the production of different goods and services, and what they actually cost the environment. 

I had a look around; there arenít many studies on this for greeting cards, but I did find some work which considers the impacts of newspapers. 

The authors of this paper - it was a Swiss study - found that if you have a weekday newspaper, it costs about the same as reading an online one, but with huge amounts of uncertainty and lots of assumptions.

Say, for example, you change the electricity mix - whether you have a lot of fossil fuels in it or not: the online one moves a huge amount.  But if you consider food, for example, the difference in footprint between a steak and a risotto is about 200 times the impact of what these authors found the newspaper was.

So, send your Valentineís card, eCard, physical, and then worry about instead what you choose from the menu on your first date.


Diana -   There are huge number of variables to consider, but here at the Naked Scientists, we like to go a bit deeper.  In fact, we got the author of ďWithout Hot AirĒ and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department for Energy and Climate Change - thatís Cambridge University's Professor David Mackay - to work it out for us.  Sadly, he was too busy with his myriad responsibilities to record it, so his answer is voiced by our very own Ben Valsler...

Ben -   To calculate the energy cost of the eCard, we can add 1 minute of the senderís computer time, thatís 2 x 100 watts x 60 seconds and that gives 12,000 joules.  To be on the safe side, we add another 50% to allow for the internet energy cost, and that gives us a total cost of 18 kilojoules.

Moving on to the paper card, the card itself plus the envelope have a chemical energy of around 0.12 kilowatt hours.  An educated guess says that the energy expended at the paper mill is likely to be similar, so that gives us 0.24 kilowatt hours.  But then we can expect a fraction to be reclaimed if the card is recycled later.  So letís round down and say the card costs about 0.2 kilowatt hours.

But thereís still the cost of transport to the shop and through the postal system.  What is the energy cost of picking up the card from the post box and sending it out across the country? 

Sharing equally between the postal items, the collection part of the journey costs 0.01 kilowatt hours per item.  Then, the card has to travel a bit further.  Letís say from Lancaster to Skegness via several depots, the answer is 0.009 kilowatt hours.  Adding this figure to the collection cost gives roughly 0.02 kilowatt hours, that gives us a total value for the paper card of 0.22 kilowatt hours. 

However, the eCard only costs 18 kilojoules, which converts to 0.005 kilowatt hours. 

That's on the order of 40 times less.


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I think ecards are more environmentally friendly because in sending one, you have fulfilled the purpose of a card without using paper, inks, dyes, etc. You have also eliminated the waste that card would have become had it been made of traditional paper card.
I think the same is for letters, advertisements, and any personal mail one might receive in print. I think that e-cards, e-books, e-mail, etc. have common elements: they require no paper, they require no shipping via automobiles (their shipping is entirely electronic), they produce no waste, they generally cost less, and they don't get wrinkly as old books tend to do.

Lamprey5, Tue, 1st Feb 2011

There was a  recent discussion about this.

One has to compare the lifecycle energy in the printed card including manufacture, distribution, sales, postal service, and disposal.

Vs the energy in the e-card (the energy in your computer read it, as well as the energy in the internet distribution network).  I'm assuming the computer would have been purchased with or without the e-card.

Overall, the total energy, and waste of the E-Card seems much less.

Please send me an e-mail instead of a "free" e-card.

Somebody is paying for the e-cards with advertising, perhaps email harvesting.  I don't want the excess advertising, or the risk of SPAM.

While you can initiate an e-card with a "junk-mail" address, I don't typically give my "junk-mail" address out to friends, and would not accept an e-card from a friend trying to hide behind a junk-mail address. CliffordK, Wed, 2nd Feb 2011

..yes but if it took you 30 odd minutes to find "just that perfect card" think of the energy used.  True you are not using bits of trees but you are using bits of ancient trees (coal) to produce the power to make your ecard.  Just think about that for a bit.  Also this is not a one-off "cost" as there are ongoing costs to maintain the server(s) and switches to move the card "notice" around (true it is small) but those machines run 24/7 regardless if you have read the card or not yet.

Finally remember that roughly 5 to 10% of today's modern household energy is accounted for by "standby mode" in appliances.  This is akin to waiting for that ecard to be read.

- Dirk dirkman, Wed, 2nd Feb 2011

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