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How E-friendly is the iPad? An attempt at following my own advice.

March 30, 2010

The Apple iPad is launching in the U.S. on April 3rd, but the big switch from books/newspapers to electronic devices raises concerns about the environmental impact it could cause.

It turns out, according to a preliminary life-cycle assessment study by Swedish researchers, E-readers are more environmentally friendly than newspapers – but only if people recycle the e-readers when they are done with them.

The big release of the iPad lines up well with the government and policy systems in place in Ontario to handle electronic waste.

The Ontario Electronic Stewardship will be entering into Phase 2 of their plan on April 1st. This plan will require them to be responsible for funding the collection and recycling of various consumer electronics.

And now for the real story. I’ve been doing a lot of work on the theory behind science communication. I was even bold enough to come up with some tips for  journalists on the subject. But there’s nothing worse than a communication critic that doesn’t actually do.

At my school, we specialize in a medium at the end of the program. Print, radio, or what I chose – television.  I think TV has the highest reach, and highest engagement value, so I thought it would help my goal of communicating science to the the public.

And now to defend my work.

In my interviews with science journalists Nicola Jones and Carl Zimmer, they differed on one major point. Can science stand on its own? Or does it need to be grounded in current affairs. I think Zimmer made a mistake in the interview by suggesting we don’t need to try make science relevant to the public,

There really isn’t any need to make wild claims about a cure for cancer right around the corner. So very often I make a conscious effort not to look at immediate relevance if it’s not really there.

I don’t think we need to resort to wild claims, or as  Kate Maddalena put it – “The water you’re sitting in is about to boil you alive.”

For my TV story, it started because I had a question – I wonder what’s better for the environment? Kindles or books?

Many people have probably asked the same question, maybe they even talked it out with their friends. But this is where Zimmer got it absolutely right,

A general reader is never going to sit down and read an actual scientific paper from start to finish, that’s just not going to happen.

But journalists aren’t, or they shouldn’t be, general readers. I wanted to know the answer to my question, not an answer. So I did a literature search and came across this:

Moberb, A et al. “Printed and tablet e-paper newspaper from an environmental perspective —A screening life cycle assessment.” Environmental impact assessment review. 2010. vol 30. pg 177-191

And this is where I think science journalists can be at their best. Ed Yong is absolutely right that “this is cool” science journalism should never be overlooked, but neither should explaining the science of the day to the public. It’s not so much science journalism, as journalism that isn’t afraid of science. The answers to many journalistic questions are in the literature – but most journalists are either too scared, too time-stressed, or don’t know how to get it.

So here’s where my story comes in. I’ve got my background research, the preliminary life-cycle assessment suggests e-readers are better than distributed newspapers given this, this, this and some other caveat. But one caveat seemed much bigger and more out-of-place than the others. The authors of the paper had assumed a 70% recycling rate for electronic waste. That seemed really, really high. It turns out, at least for London, Ont., that most e-waste ends up in the landfill.

So the story grew from there – What is the behind-the-scenes of e-waste recycling? Why should I care? How does it affect me? Which is better, anyway?

But above that I tried to follow my other tips :

– It’s a video story, intended for a general audience, and meant to be run in a local television newscast.

– It’s entertaining (I hope), shot to be compelling with quick sequencing, a minimum of talking-heads, and music.

– It’s framed as social progress, where the new technology has benefits beyond being a funky new tool.

– But, it calls the political aspect (the electronics stewardship program) into question, by highlighting that there will be costs for the consumer.

Now you may mention that it’s not particularly science-heavy. It’s not a science story. But I don’t think it needs to be. People will learn some science that they wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to, it helps them understand their world and it has direct personal relevance. And thanks to the iPad being released on the 3rd, it’s timely (anyone have a TV station they want to run it on? :P).

If I were to grade it on my own evaluation matrix (how biased is that?!) I’d get a…. 6 out of 8. I didn’t hold the science up to scrutiny, and I didn’t portray science as a process.

75% is a pass, isn’t it?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 30, 2010 6:12 pm

    You fail to mention that books and newspapers make up a very small proportion of the applications developed for the iPad – 14% for books, and 2% for news. In fact, 44% of all apps are for merely playing games.

    Seems like a big whole in your television piece… not much reading is going on with the iPad, thus it is a lot MORE environmentally harmful because it is merely used for gaming, not to replace physical reading and the paper and transportation associated with it.

    My logic could be flawed. Visit my site and you`ll realize I am far from a scientist. Just my two cents…

    • March 30, 2010 7:35 pm

      Logic fail. Just because 44% of apps may be games doesn’t mean it wont replace 100% of newspapers.

  2. March 30, 2010 7:32 pm

    Nicely shot, budday!
    My favourite part, of course, is the brief shot of an NES cartridge in that box in your basement. What game was that? I squinted for like, a whole 20 seconds trying to figure it out.

    • March 30, 2010 7:37 pm

      Metroid, Mario/Duckhunt, Dragon Warrior, and Star Tropics. The one you saw was Metroid.

      Should come over – you control the ducks, I shoot.


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