Digital editions: pathway to greener publications

Digital editions: pathway to greener publications

Digital publishing could significantly improve the environmental impact of the publishing sector. Through paperless production, resource consumption and emissions will be reduced.

Digital technologies have revolutionised people’s lives in a variety of ways. Such innovations have fundamentally changed the landscape of many industries, altering the manner in which they operate and the nature of the products they produce.

Now however, the digital revolution could hold the key to solving an environmental problem within the media sector. Across the globe, billions of magazines and newspapers are printed each year, and their production, distribution and recycling has a significant environmental impact.

Even a small city newspaper uses approximately 200 000 tonnes of newsprint per year. The production and use of such volumes of paper, coupled with the added environmental impacts of transport and recycling, are not conducive to a sustainable economy. This fact coupled with a drop in the revenues of mainstream newspapers and magazines has prompted many to look for an alternative.

Electronic newspapers are a flexible and low-cost solution to printed publications. They offer the easy worldwide distribution, without any of the usual emissions from transport or printing. Moreover, they can be distributed faster than traditional papers and magazines so are more of a ‘just-in-time’ product. Not only can they be cheaper for the user, but can also offer additional interactive services.

Truly paperless products

Digital publishing and electronic newspapers offer media organisations a chance to cut expenditure, increase readership and, above all, reduce their environmental footprint. Although the concept of digital publishing has been slow to take off, two European initiatives – the EUREKA ITEA Cluster Diginews project and Marlin Digital Publishing – have developed services which offer publishers the chance to produce truly paperless products.

While digital publishing reduces paper consumption and emissions from distribution; it slashes recycling costs, waste collection costs, fuel emissions, the use of harmful chemicals and the inevitable contribution to litter.

In addition to the environmental benefits, there are also real commercial benefits. Digital publishing offers lower print and distribution costs, and enables publishers to widen their readership across the globe.

Moreover, the fact that the digital publications can be built around existing operating infrastructures make them an attractive proposition. Other advantages include: faster distribution, just-in-time deliver and the chance to offer additional service to customers.

By changing to a paperless production process, publishers are set to make considerable savings. From an environmental point of view, a shift to electronic publications negates the need to use ink, paper or even large scale transport.


One European project has already demonstrated the effectiveness of the global publisher-to-reader solutions available through digital newspapers. DigiNews was established in 2003 at the Philips Digital Systems Laboratory in Leuven, Belgium. The project, which received funding from national public authorities through the EUREKA Information Technology for European Advancement (ITEA) Cluster programme, focused on the development of electronic newspapers.

Motivated by the development of e-paper technology, the DigiNews project was set-up to design an infrastructure that could demonstrate the successful operation of a digital newspaper based on portable lightweight and paper-like terminals, and using existing communications infrastructure:

DigiNews evaluated various business models to develop the best electronic newspaper possible. To achieve this goal, the project drew on the support of an international consortium of 20 partners from Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Sweden, Spain and the UK. The consortium included SMEs, industries, research centres and universities, as well as publishers and infrastructure providers.

After finalising a template for a successful electronic newspaper, DigiNews then carried out demonstrations in Belgium, Spain and Sweden. In all three cases, the final products were met with approval.

Beyond being a solely commercial venture, DigiNews electronic newspapers fulfilled a more social role. Added to the environmental benefits, the product newspaper was also accessible to the visually impaired.

Marlin Digital Publishing

Based in Sale in England, Marlin Digital Publishing launched a new process for electronic publishing in 2008. Its Digital Max Editions cater for European publications looking to transfer their print products into paperless digital editions.

The Digital Max Editions are practical products that can be easily and frequently updated. In contrast to printed editions, they also offer a much further global reach, at a faction of the cost.

All of Marlin’s publications are distributed as ‘easy-to-read’ digital editions that offer more than just animated web pages. The publications retain the original quality of the printed version, while also offering the chance to incorporate rich forms of media.

Marlin’s approach does not require clients to make dramatic changes to their operation process. Rather the Marlin production process simply uses the customers’ pre-press pages to create exact digital replicas.

These digital productions, like the electronic newspapers developed by DigiNews, also offer additional services. For example, all digital publications can be transferred into bespoke versions for the visually impaired. In addition, every digital production can be tracked to provide beneficial statistical analysis for the client. This provides instant breakdowns of user preferences and activities.

The environmental benefits of switching to Marlin’s digital production process can be significant. In the case of a 32-page newsletter, with a print run of 70 000, changing over to a digital publication would save no less than 3 226 trees. Further savings include:

  • 134 tonnes of paper;
  • 3 763 200 litres of water by not producing paper;
  • 269 barrels of oil by not producing paper;
  • 551 040 kW hours of electricity; and
  • 13 873 kg of industrial waste.


Report indicates a need to shift to e-readers

There are some concerns that reading digital newspapers online might not be as environmentally friendly as traditional printing. A 2007 paper from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm showed that 30 minutes of reading an Internet newspaper has roughly the same environmental effect as reading a hard copy version. The research took into account resource use and environmental impact of the entire life cycle of various electronic and printed newspapers. Factors such as how many people read the newspaper and the life span of the equipment used to read digital versions were all considered to determine the true environmental load of a particular publication. Results of this study suggest that e-readers and e-books offer a sustainable solution for publishing. This is due to the fact that people spend less time reading newspapers online – up to eight times less according to a McKinsey study – than hard-copy versions. These and other forms of e-paper technologies have a significant advantage over both traditional and online publishing with regard to their environmental impact. The price of devices required to read e-content are still quite high, but considering the pace of price falls in the IT sector, such as MP3 players, they should become true alternatives to hard-copy publications in the near future.

More information:

‘Screening environmental life cycle assessment of printed, web based and tablet e-paper newspaper’; Åsa Moberg, Martin Johansson, Göra N F Innveden and Alex Jonsson; KTH Centre for Sustainable Communications, Stockholm, Sweden:

http://www.csc.kth.se/sustain/publications/reportfiles/sus_2007_1_moberg_et_al_report.pdf [548 KB]

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