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Climate change 2014: impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability

Substituting electronic means of storing and distributing information for methods that depend on the use of paper is one instance of the substitution of resource-light for resource-heavy technologies that deserves special attention. Paper and paper products account for about one-third of all solid waste in the United States. A considerable fraction of paper waste is from newspapers (whose daily circulation is about 63 million according to the Bureau of the Census, 1990) and magazines. Given that most buyers ofPage 166Suggested Citation:“5 Environmental Change.” National Research Council. 1995. Emerging Needs and Opportunities for Human Factors Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/4940.×SaveCancel

newspapers are interested in only a fraction of the information that is in them, that buyers discard newspapers immediately after reading them, and that printing and distributing them are energy-intensive processes, this method of information distribution is extremely inefficient relative to technologically feasible alternatives. Similar observations apply to magazines.

Despite many predictions that less paper would be used as a result of the increasing use of electronic information exchange systems, there is little evidence of any such reduction. It may even be that computer technology has stimulated the use of more paper than ever before. Nevertheless, the potential remains for decreasing the use of paper by making more effective use of electronic information storage and distribution. Significantly realizing this potential would have the doubly beneficial effect of conserving the energy and natural resources used in the production of paper and of reducing the generation of solid waste.

The technology exists for distributing news and information electronically rather than in traditional newspapers and magazines; to date, however, that technology is not sufficiently widely installed in homes to be a feasible basis for replacing paper media. It seems highly likely, however, that in the not-distant future most homes will have the means of making electronic newspapers and magazines practical. There are likely to be nontechnical obstacles to their acceptance and use by the public, stemming from the fact that video displays, even if made to look something like a book, are very different from the types of print media with which people are familiar. It would be useful to know what would make electronic books, newspapers, and periodicals acceptable to people as replacements for their paper counterparts.

This is not to suggest that realization of the potential of information technology for reducing the need for paper awaits only a better understanding of the psychological deterrents to the use of electronic media. The practical usability and the actual use of communication facilities also depend on the existence of an adequate infrastructure, pricing policies that provide incentives for use, and general access to the critical facilities. User acceptability, however, is likely to be a key determinant of the extent to which this technology is appropriated when other impediments to its exploitation no longer apply.