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Clean and Green? Maybe...


By Karen Kapsanis

More items for Environmental Controls

I wouldn’t call it a scam or a lie or even an intention to mislead.

“It” is the language that appears on many utility bills I receive. It goes something like this: “Pay online; go paperless; go green.”

On bank statements, the language is similar. “Go green! Go paperless; bank online.” And on it goes, depending on the business—including health care and health insurance.

I’d say the call to “go green” by doing business online is probably at best a paradox, because the Internet isn’t quite as green as we’d like to believe. Since its precursors 50-odd years ago for government and research, it expedites the exchange of information—a critical solution to a problem faced by its original audience and, in many cases, by its present-day audience.

And I don’t deny that the Internet allows us to share information around the world, pay our bills, otherwise spend our money, read newspapers and, yes, magazines and other sources of information, while saving paper, postage, ink (and hence chemicals), and fuel, all of which help protect the environment.

On the Other Hand...

But keeping the Internet running consumes considerable energy—approximately 76 billion kilowatt hours in 2010 in the U.S. alone, or around 2% of all energy used in the U.S. that year, according to a third-party study that the New York Times commissioned for a year and reported on Sept. 22 (“Pollution, Power, and the Internet”).

The point of the article has been on my mind ever since I read it. In that year-long study, an average of less than 10% of those 76 billion kilowatt hours was actually spent on our use of the Internet, James Glanz reports.

About 2 percent of U.S. energy consumption in 2010 was directed at powering the Internet.

The other 90% of the energy the U.S. consumed for the Internet that year was spent to meet our—the users’— demand that the Internet be, well, online all the time, so we can access information anytime we want from anywhere we have Internet access, including stored emails and attachments. That’s all the data centers in the U.S. run by the government and by private industry.

The Search for Alternatives

Fortunately, as some of the people interviewed in the Times article point out, many companies providing the energy-hungry servers are researching, finding, and using alternative energy sources to reduce conventional power use and pollution.

And, as it is with determining anything’s or anyone’s environmental footprint, comparing what we save to what we consume is really hard to calculate.


Efforts to reduce the environmental footprint of anything notwithstanding, we often solve one problem, but our solution creates another problem.

Unintended Consequences


• Cell phones help us in business and our personal lives, letting us call or text from virtually anywhere, including our cars—but cell phone use while driving now accounts, by some estimates, for as many car crashes as DUIs.

• Protecting the environment from heavy metals in debris from old paint resulted in the use of containment structures for lead paint removal. But working inside containment often dramatically raised blasting crews’ exposure to lead above permissible limits because the dust was concentrated in the containment. Thus, technology for worker protection was developed to solve the worker health problem created by the solution to an environmental problem.

• Every prescription-drug commercial I see gives the benefits of the drug (loudly and with happy actors) while announcing, often at a much lower volume, the drug’s potential side effects, such as vomiting, dizziness, kidney failure, or death.

• Hybrid and electric cars save loads of gasoline in city driving, but what about those big lithium batteries? And what about the energy consumed by the electric cars that use charging stations?

• The widespread use of computers for something as basic as word processing makes it possible for most of us to write our own correspondence, but that means more repetitive motion injuries on the job.

• And, of course, this column will appear on our website, which, like your companies’ sites, runs 24/7. And I check my email, hoard it, read articles (like the one I just referenced), and surf the web at home at odd hours. So here I am, using an amazing technology that reduces some environmental problems but contributes to others.

Answers and Problems

It’s difficult, in every instance above, to see all the problems created by one solution until after it has been in place for a while.

But it’s clear to me that we risk causing harm whenever our solution to one problem unintentionally creates another.

Is it possible to reduce the risk? I hope so.


Karen Kapsanis

Karen Kapsanis was the Editor in Chief of the Journal of Protective Coatings & Linings when these blogs were written. Post-JPCL, Karen remains an inexplicably lifelong fan of the Green Bay Packers and a surprisingly speedy sprinter.



Tagged categories: Business operations; Containment; Energy efficiency; Health and safety; Information technology; Lead; Lead

Comment from John Fauth, (1/2/2013, 8:21 AM)

Excellent article, Karen. It's not "anti-environment" to fully consider the unintended consequences to feel good deeds. Particularly as it relates to legislation.

Comment from Tim Ens, (1/2/2013, 10:33 AM)

Good article, Karen. "Going Green" does not totally eliminate the use of energy, it shifts processes to a diffrent way of using energy.

Comment from Bob Parker, (8/14/2013, 10:28 AM)

Karen, you have generated some important food for thought with your editorial. As we attempt to "Go Green", we may have to think twice before we make these changes. Attempt we should, as the evolution of technology is part of who we are. But we must be able to admit our mistakes when they arise.

Comment from Car F., (8/15/2013, 11:53 AM)

“Go Green” in my view, doesn’t question our consumer and wasteful economic model. Should every person reduce its consumption by 10% the system would collapse, because the economic system's viability rest on infinity consumption on finite resources. Continuation of our present suicidal economic model would require at least two planets Earth. The "green" alternative is a fallacy invented by the worst polluters and environmental ruffians to disguise the fundamental problem: a voracious and depredatory economic model that it will kill us all,....even if you paint everything green.

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