Hey Mr. Green,
During my recent Hawaii vacation, I watched tourists taking thousands of pictures and pondered the value of new digital technology in avoiding the millions of rolls of film and bad pictures that used to be processed. Do you have any idea about the savings in chemicals, film, and photo paper thanks to digital photography? Seems like a real green boon to me.
--John in Hinsdale, Illinois
Actually, the digital method isn't much easier on the environment than old-fashioned film. Sure, it takes chemicals to develop film, but think of all the toxic substances needed to make computers, printers, and ink cartridges--not to mention the hazardous waste involved in their disposal.
Since the two photography methods have such different impacts, it's a mind-boggling task just to set up a comparison because of the huge number of variables.
Digital does beat film in two realms--energy use and greenhouse-gas emissions--but isn't great in the categories of water use and waste generation. According to the most impressive study I've found, by Michael Muir at the Georgia Institute of Technology, the least energy consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions occur in digital photography when the user has an LCD monitor and ink-jet printer. This requires about half as much energy as retail film processing and releases about 40 percent fewer emissions. However, it requires much more water (digital manufacturing is a water-intensive industry) and can generate 10 times as much waste.
Also, with all digital technology, so much depends on how it's used. Even if you never print your digital images, you still wear out batteries, burn through memory cards, and spend hours gaping at them on-screen. That's when your digital efficiency can lose its edge. Fiddle around in Photoshop or upload any of those shots as screen savers, and your energy usage flies off the charts.
To put things in perspective, consider that guy in the tuberculosis sanitarium in Thomas Mann's novel The Magic Mountain. In his room, he keeps an X-ray image of his girlfriend's lungs. True, processing the film for that X-ray required resources, but if instead of gazing at the film, he'd persistently visited and venerated the same image on his PC, he could have very well exceeded the environmental burden of the X-ray film over the course of the relationship.