The weekly Verdigris blog by Laurel Brunner
It may sound like a joke, but a group of British university students has recently completed a research project using this as a starting point. The University of Leicester students wanted to know how much of the Amazon rainforest it would take to print out the internet. There are a couple of leaps of faith required to take this work seriously. First of all it is hardly likely that the paper used to print the internet would exclusively comprise virgin fibre sourced from Amazon rainforests. And the internet is constantly expanding. But apart from these two niggles, this is an interesting project.
The students calculate that a mere one percent of the rainforest’s trees would be required to print out the nonexplicit internet. This is the bit of the internet that we can see and that is estimated to account for only 2% of the entire internet. The rest is private or dark and so invisible to ordinary people. The students reckon that the nonexplicit internet could be printed with less than one percent of the 400 billion trees spread across the 5.5 million square feet of the Amazon rainforest. Their point seems a little vague, but they were very pleased to discover that so little rainforest was required.
They based calculations on Wikipedia content, assuming an average of 15 pages per article. The students calculate that there are 4.724 million articles on Wikipedia, and this is the basis for what they wanted to print. It amounted to nearly 71 million paper pages (presumably A4), of the nonexplicit internet. They also assumed that a single tree yields 17 reams of paper, so each Amazonian rainforest tree is therefore good for 8,500 sheets of virgin paper. This means that 8,337 trees would be required to print Wikipedia, some twelve percent of each square kilometre of the Amazon rainforest. And that is just for Wikipedia.
Extrapolating out these numbers the University of Leicester students reckon that to print all of the nonexplicit internet would require 8,001,765 trees which is about 113 square kilometres of the Amazon rainforest. They say this amounts to two percent.
So what do we think about this work? That it is scientifically flawed and based on curious assumptions is clear. However it is worthwhile because it makes a start in doing calculations of this sort. It’s also worthwhile because it raises awareness of the loss of Amazon rainforest over the last few years. It does not a lot to improve print’s environmental profile, but it does provide an interesting illustration of the internet’s massive data volumes. This might encourage people to think a bit about the emissions related to managing and delivering internet based content. Maybe then they will also consider the environmental impact of an online existence.
– Laurel Brunner