Due to the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic this past winter semester, the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business students completed their classes online. We did what we never had done before: used our technology in our — now virtual — classrooms. With only a few days’ notice, students were thrust into remote learning. We were able to adapt to Zoom, living at home and public health guidelines.

As COVID-19 stretches on through the fall, we are navigating hybrid and remote classes as well as living on or close to campus, but more than that, we are navigating trust. Trust in our ability to stay safe, wear our masks, stay socially distanced and — to the main point of this article — navigate our electronic usage in class. As we look toward the post-pandemic future, accessibility and technological usage in the classroom should not be based on maturity levels, but rather a focus on the more extensive environmental impacts that could be minimized. Currently, the Business School’s policy for BBAs states “laptops, tablets, and other such devices are not allowed in class.” This policy is mainly in place because administrators and professors believe that students will be distracted or distract others if they use electronic devices in class. Therefore, either professor or students usually print out lecture slides and notes, using a wasteful thousands upon thousands of pieces of paper annually. Yet, when looking at the MBA policies, we don’t see the stringent “no technology” policy being implemented. Instead, we see this: “use of laptops, tablets and electronic reading devices will be allowed in class. However, the sending of emails or texting during class is not allowed as a courtesy to other students.” 

Though the Business School’s administration most likely would contend that the MBA students are better at monitoring their electronic usage, there have never been any studies delving into this nuance at the Business School, from my research. MBA students may be older, however, the youngest of BBA students have in some cases been using electronics in their required non-Business classes since day one. For example, if you look at the policies for Econ 101 or Econ 102, these courses outline certain rules for using technology, such as “computer keyboards may not be used for typing notes in class,” but do not stringently ban the use of laptops in general. This age or maturity argument that separates BBAs from MBAs is demeaning of our undergraduate academic capabilities that advanced students into the Business School in the first place, as well as being based on assumptions about our behaviors and habits. 

Moreover, not only are these rules devoid of trust, but they also cause a significant deleterious effect on the environment. According to a live counter from The World Counts, more than 290,000,000 tons of paper have been produced so far this year, which only highlights the fact that “the average person (in Europe, Japan and the USA) uses between 250-300 kilos every year. That’s almost as heavy as 45 bowling balls!” Considering a single piece of A4 paper weighs 5 grams, we can calculate the number of papers that the average American uses to be about 50,000 pieces of paper annually. Moreover, each piece of paper requires about 10 liters of water to be produced, meaning the average person living in the U.S. uses 500,000 liters of water for paper alone annually. Though many people may think that water is the infinite reusable resource, water scarcity, especially a lack of clean, drinkable water, is further becoming an issue globally. 

People may think that recycling paper makes it less harmful, which is true. However, many don’t recycle. As stated in The World Counts, “paper accounts for 25% of landfill waste and 33% of municipal waste.” The timber industry is still rapidly growing; more than 30 million acres of trees were destroyed in 2018. If you remember the old adage “Reduce, reuse and recycle” — you know that the first word is “reduce.” To understand the alarming discussion surrounding paper production, you have to look into the supply chain: what is used to cut down the trees, turn the wood into pulp, turn the pulp into paper and then ship it to its end destination, all using energy and resources. Furthermore, “most of the materials in landfills are made of paper. When paper rots, it emits methane, a greenhouse gas. When it is burned or composted, carbon dioxide is produced.” Both of these emitted greenhouse gases are contributing to climate change, while also taking trees out of the environment, leading to carbon sequestration. It is a lose-lose-lose situation.

While some may argue that electronics are more detrimental to the environment than paper, we all have to have computers in order to attend the Business School, so there would be no increase in energy and resource expenditure to shift to this policy. Even if some students do decide to buy tablets, one study done at Leiden University in the Netherlands found that it would require a conservative break-even point of 5000 pieces of woodfree uncoated paper to offset the environmental impact of the digital device. 

Furthermore, according to the nonprofit Climate Action Tracker, “current policy pathways have a higher than 97 percent probability of exceeding 2℃ of global temperature increase. If the world surpasses or reaches 2℃ of warming, current predictions are that arctic summer sea ice and coral reefs will most likely cease to exist, meaning rising sea levels as well as a reduction of food and coastal protection for half a billion people. When looking at the catastrophic effects of even an increase of half a degree, from 1.5℃ to 2.0℃, the number of people affected by extreme heat would jump from 14 to 37 percent of the world population. Moreover, the number of people who will suffer from extreme drought would rise from 350 million to 411 million and humans exposed to flooding due to rising sea levels would increase from around 31-69 to 32-80 million people with a half-degree increase. If we are going to mitigate some of these risks, we must change our behaviors regarding paper consumption. Climate action has to be taken now.

Carson Blodgett can be reached at cjblodge@umich.edu

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