Why I Don’t Go Paperless

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Almost every company I do business with wants me to go green, which is to say, receive paperless bills. I have a few problems with this, though:

  1. It’s a dark pattern. One of the main reasons they want you to do this is so that costs are hidden to you. They know that people will not look at their bills if they have to go download them.
  2. It’s dishonest. The other main reason is that it saves them money and, as their customer, saves me money. But they never justify it that way. They never tell you straight out that they are just trying to cut costs. Which is a shame, because I respect companies that cut costs.
  3. It may not be green.

How do I know it’s a dark pattern?

Simple. If they really wanted me to read the bill, they would send it to me as a PDF attachment. My excellent long-distance carrier, Enhanced Communications Group (happy customer for 15 years) does exactly this. They are also fully honest — you want a paper bill? You pay extra. Simple. And since they have great rates, they want me to see the bill and I do.

Every other business I deal with sends me a notice that my statement is ready and I can log into see it. I never do. There are two possible reasons they would do this:

  1. Security
  2. Obfuscation

There are in fact some PCI (Payment Card Industry) compliance issues with credit card statements — sending the statement by email suddenly includes that statement, which has personal information, in the cardholder data environment (CDE). So there are some industries with a legitimate excuse, but is there any reason my phone bill needs this level of protection? After all, the NSA has already logged all my calls.

Even that said, my email is locked down behind two-factor authentication, making it one of the most secure things I do online. None of my credit card companies or banks even offer two-factor authentication, let alone require it. Of course a determined person can get into my email, but as far as I’m concerned, it is more secure than my credit card company’s site. So clearly they are not security conscious. They are, instead, obfuscating my bill. This isn’t even to mention that most people worry far more about the privacy of their email than the privacy of they electric bill.

But it is green, right?

Now it gets complicated. Let’s assume that by green we mean that something has a lower carbon footprint. Even given that assumption, the variables are many. Is it recycled paper? Do you throw it in the landfill, recycle it or archive it forever (the latter being, in fact a carbon sink). Do you live way out in the country where mail delivery is more carbon intensive?

And on the email side, are you reading your email on a massive 27″ monitor? Do you upgrade your computer often? Is your electricity at home from coal, natural gas or solar? All of these things will impact the carbon footprint of reading online.

Jonathan Lung has done an amazing back-of-the-envelope analysis of the the carbon cost of printing a sheet at home using your own equipment. He figured it at about 6g of carbon per printed sheet. Other people arrive at similar answers (see the collapsed answer by an anonymous user). He concludes that with virgin paper, every six minutes on your computer with a 24″ LCD monitor has a carbon footprint equal to a printed sheet. But if you use recycled paper and ink cartridges, then every three minutes on the computer has a footprint equal to printing a sheet of paper.

The devil really is in the details though. As Jonathan says:

 I’ve measured the power consumption of the laptop I use, a first generation MacBook Air, to be 10W with Wi-fi on and the screen at medium brightness.  That’s 8% of the hypothetical system in the measurements above, allowing me to read 13 times more slowly and spend about 40 minutes reading a page instead of printing on recycled paper with reused toner to break even.  On the other hand, a more power hungry system results in less time to break even.  A dual 24″ monitor setup on a more powerful computer with a high-end graphics card would require reading at a rate of more than 1 page/minute to be more CO₂ efficient than printing out the page.

Another analysis estimated that it takes 20gms to deliver your letter and the paper is about 1gm of CO2 for each gram of paper. I just weighed one of my weightier bills and it came in at 18gms. So in theory that bill cost 38gms of carbon. Again, however, that number will change dramatically based on the type of paper, where you live and what you do with the paper in the end.

Finally, a study commissioned by the Argentine mail system found that a four-page bulk mail piece delivered to the door was about 29 gms, but my average bill is less than three pages, so 29 gms is high.

But that isn’t 25–40 gms extra, that’s 25–40 gms total. Assuming you read the email, go to the website, log in, download attachment, read your bill and then save it, you will have generated a fair bit of CO2. The main footprint from email is the power to run the computer you read it on, so that convoluted process dramatically increases the carbon footprint (another reason they should just send you an attachment if they cared about the environment).

Again according to Jonathan Lung, you can budget about 1 gm per minute on a computer. So if that process takes you ten minutes, you burn about 10 gms. Other studies say it may be 19 gms for an email with an attachment. The Guardian says that an email with a long, tiresome attachement may have a footprint as high as 50 gms. I’m not sure a bill would count because I probably don’t read it that carefully, but if I were to go over my credit card statement carefully and reconcile charges, it could well be 50 gms or more.

So at this point, the electronic version is ahead by 6–30 gms (discounting, perhaps unjustly, the 50 gms scenario). We’ll take an average (18 gms) and round up and call it 20 gms.

Bottom line: the footprint of that bill is roughly 2ogms of CO2

How does that compare to other things?

So let’s just take some rough numbers based mostly on a series from The Guardian.

So in short, if you eat cheeseburgers to fuel a 15-mile ride, you have probably burned as much carbon as your entire year’s worth of bills on paper. And that assumes you are not using dual mega monitors on your computer.

Put another way, if you stop adding milk to your daily tea or coffee, you would save more carbon than if you stopped receiving your statements on paper assuming you get fewer than 10 statements per week (I get about 4–5).

Put yet another way, assuming you get about 10 statements per month with a footprint of 2400 gms per year, that is the same as avoiding a single load of laundry. If you air dry two loads instead of tumble drying them, you are way ahead of the person who gets electronic bills and tumble dries.

And the answer is… at least for me.

So in short, I don’t find the go green argument compelling. There are lots of other ways to reduce my impact without also reducing my ability to track and follow bills. Since going back to paper statements that come in the mail (again, with the exception of ECG), I find my finances are much better organized. I have already caught one fraudulent charge for over $100 and had it reversed. I also find that I watch my water and electric usage more carefully, which reduces my footprint.

So in the end, I choose to reject the dark pattern, receive a paper statement that leaves a paper trail and air dry two loads of laundry per year to achieve breakeven.

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