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Can digital learning save the environment?

Updated: May 15, 2020

Publication Date: April 29, 2020

Digital learning cartoon

These unprecedented times are creating huge shifts in everyone’s lives, students and faculty alike, but how can we look at the bright side and make these changes into something positive? Perhaps you have had some extra time to catch up on the latest TV shows or go back and rewatch some of your favorite movies.  If you have not seen “The Lorax,” it’s the perfect film for Earth Month with a great message. 

“I am the Lorax who speaks for the trees, which you seem to be chopping as fast as you please!” The introduction of remote learning has certainly posed an interesting challenge at Rider, but this new “normal” brings along with it some unique environmental benefits as well. 

Digital learning and remote work essentially has forced schools and universities to go paperless, making a huge step towards sustainability. The paper industry is the third-largest polluter of air, water and land in the United States, releasing over 220 million pounds of pollution each year. In recent years, there has been a much larger push for universities to reduce their reliance on paper and move to electronic devices for school work. This would certainly make the Lorax happy.

In the past 40 years, worldwide paper usage has increased 400%, with the U.S. now consuming over 90 million tons of paper a year. That means 700 pounds of paper per person per year. Putting that into the global perspective, the U.S. constitutes only 5% of the world’s population, but yet is responsible for over 30% of worldwide paper usage. 

Not only do trees produce the oxygen that is necessary for us to breathe, but they absorb carbon dioxide, a harmful greenhouse gas released by human activities. In one year, a mature tree will absorb over 48 pounds of CO2 from the atmosphere and release oxygen in exchange ( In one year, the U.S. consumes 68 million trees worth of paper products. That’s 3.3 billion pounds of CO2 that are not being absorbed due to deforestation!

With this new introduction of digital learning, there is no need for physical exams, essays or assignments. All schoolwork is now 100% digital, essentially cutting university-wide paper use down to zero. Instead of wasting hundreds of sheets of paper that would only be forgotten about eventually, assignments can now be submitted online and easily stored forever in case it is needed in the future. 

The cloud allows for user-friendly storage of all digital files and work, rather than clunky, space-consuming filing cabinets. When relying on paper copies, work and correspondence can be easily lost between point A and point B, but this is not the case with digital storage.

Senior environmental science major Alina Bardaji says that “Digital learning can be a strong force in environmentalism because it saves a monumental amount of paper, from exams to in-class assignment sheets. Although it has its challenges, if utilized well, it could help our planet more than we think.” 

With the current reliance on paper, an estimated 18 million acres of forest are destroyed each year. That’s over 20 football fields per minute. If we continue at this rate, the Earth’s rainforests will be destroyed in less than 100 years. 

Junior musical theatre major Ilyssa Rubin sees the need for change. 

“Remote learning has forced teachers who were previously very set in their ways to go paperless – I hope that when we are able to return to campus, schools everywhere will now be used to paperless learning and make the necessary adjustments,” Rubin stated.

Although there has been an adjustment period for all adapting to online classes, this has been a necessary push in the right direction for professors to move away from a dependence on physical paper, saving the university’s money and the world’s resources.

It’s no secret that digital learning presents challenges to both students and faculty alike. There are certain aspects of a college education that just cannot be replicated in online classes, but now it is clear that a reliance on paper is not a necessary evil.  

The Lorax said, “A tree falls the way it leans. Be careful which way you lean.”  Every sheet matters and our Earth depends on it.

Emma Harris

Rider Eco-Rep

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