In many blogs, I have commented on the issue the mailing industry faces with respect to the attacks on unsolicited marketing mail by environmentalists or privacy advocates. In particular, environmentalists argue that it would be better for the environment if everyone communicated electronically, instead of doing so in paper-based communications.

I am in the process of reviewing the increasingly robust research which suggests that electronic communication has substantial environmental hazards, in some cases, greater than physical mail-based communications. But the insight I want to share in this blog is that the boundary between physical and electronic communication is not clear, and is getting more muddied as time goes on.

As a Company which has its oldest products based in the technology for imprinting postage on physical mail envelopes or labels, Pitney Bowes would seem to be in a business dominated by physical mail. However, as we trace the lifecycle of letters, longer documents, and parcels, it is striking how intertwined physical communications are with electronic communication technologies.

Think about a single letter we print and mail. Today, that letter is increasingly likely to be generated on a word processing program on a computer. If we buy a greeting card or personalized stationery and write a handwritten note, the creation of the greeting card or stationery has likely been controlled by software and has been subject to a considerable influence by electronic communications processes.

In production mail communications, such as a billing or statement production run, the original files reside in an electronic system and are converted to printer-ready files by electronically-delivered instructions. They continue to reside in electronic form on the biller or statement originator’s system.

Similarly, when we send a parcel to someone, we are increasingly relying on a web-based interface with the postal service or carrier that we use to get it to the recipient. The time we or others spend on line has a carbon footprint additional to that generated by the movement of the package. In the blog entitled “Don’t Neglect Document Management and Output For Improving Your Organizations Carbon Footprint”, discusses the ways in which companies can begin to improve operations, making them more effective, efficient and environmentally friendly.

With respect to electronic communications, the May 24, 2008, issue of The Economist, in an article entitled“Computers and the Environment” and subtitled “Buy our stuff, save the planet” pointed out that the corollary of “cloud computing” is “more and bigger data centers on earth.” An example of this can be seen in usage of a thin client servers, or access points, found in devices such as smart phones, PDA’s, and laptops that enables users to connect to the cloud for resources when they need them. The authors note that globally, data centers account for “more carbon dioxide emissions per year than Argentina or the Netherlands.”

The answer to the environmental challenge is not to eliminate electronic communications, or to phase out paper, but to make every part of the communications activity chain as environmentally friendly as it can be. Many electronic components are hazardous and are not bio-degradable today. We must find newer, less hazardous materials, and make sure that we do not deposit electronic waste in landfills. I was very pleased to see that the U.S. Postal Service has a program for helping consumers and businesses send electronic wastes back to firms that can properly recycle or re-use them. The “Mail Back” Program makes it easier for customers to discard used or obsolete small electronics in an environmentally friendly way. By allowing customers to use free, postage paid envelopes found in 1,500 post offices.

Similarly, while opponents of paper-based communications are wildly off base on the environmental impact of cutting trees (which, in fact, are part of a harvesting process that results in a new tree that takes more carbon from the air than the cut tree) or mail ending up in landfills (less than 1% of total landfill waste), paper manufacturers could improve the environmental friendliness of the pulp and paper mills, which account for more than half of the carbon footprint of the paper lifecycle process.

Paper and electronic communications processes should be joined together in such a way that the total environmental impact is minimized and that, over time, is reduced further. The mailing industry needs to continue its efforts to engage with responsible environmentalists to make this happen.