Wiederhold: Going green is not as simple as reading off your screen

I'm the kind of person who prefers reading something printed on a piece of paper to reading it on a computer screen.

For one thing, I'm big on highlighting, underlining and scribbling notes in the margins, which is slightly less easy to accomplish when reading on my laptop. This preference of mine, however, has seemed to run me into a little bit of trouble – not only with my ever-shrinking printing balance, but with my attempts to "go green" as well.

Using paper seems to have the more obvious environmental impact – the image of trees being cut down and chopped up and the vision of paper being thrown into a trash bin and dumped into a landfill immediately comes to mind. It would seem that having your eyes glued to a computer screen for a couple of hours is more benign than being implicated in the tree-murdering business every time you print out a stack of papers.

It is less often considered how much electricity is being used every time you flip open your laptop and read your homework articles via the Internet. Is online reading actually "greener" than printing?

The Center for Sustainable Communications at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden conducted a study that found that reading web-based news for 30 minutes a day has the same range of environmental impacts as reading a printed newspaper for that same amount of time. The roots of these impacts come from different sources, however: the printed world's biggest contributing factor to its environmental impact is the production of paper, while that of the online world is the energy used to power the reader's computer.

It is important to consider that when you use the Internet, you're not only using the electricity that charges your laptop battery – you're also using the electricity that makes the Internet possible. As it turns out, the Internet is a lot more tangible than it might seem at first glance; it's not simply a virtual world opened up by a web browser. It's also a coal-hungry, fossil fuel-consuming nightmare. According to CNN, the Internet uses more power than the automobile industry. Google alone, for example, when running at its full capacity uses the same amount of energy that it takes to power all of the homes in the city of San Diego, Calif. It's not all bad news though, as Google is actually investing in a wind farm transmission network.

I should also note that the Swedish study found that if you're reading online news for only 10 minutes, the environmental impact is less than the printed newspaper's. Time is the important factor here – obviously the more time you spend on your computer, the more energy you're using. So if you were going to spend hours and hours reading something online, then printing it out on paper would actually be the more eco-friendly thing to do.

It gives me a sort of heartache to think of how much energy we're using every day and how much our daily lives have become dependent on gigantic energy-consumers like the Internet. It's not easy being green, to be sure – and it's certainly not as simple as merely phasing out paper. Until the Internet and our computers run on clean and renewable energy sources, the decision of whether to print or use the web will remain a difficult one.