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Write your notes sustainably? Pros and cons of different note-taking methods

Writing on paper or digital; which note-taking method is the most sustainable? Let's use an example of a comparative LCA study to find out.

These days, it is less common to see people writing notes by hand. At Hedgehog Company, we predominantly take notes digitally. But writing by hand has valuable benefits, including memory enhancement, increased creativity, and relaxation. However, due to the environmental impact of paper usage, some people quickly dismiss it as a note-taking method. At our office, we have experimented extensively with paper alternatives that are marketed as more sustainable. For this article we took a closer look at the impacts of some of those alternatives, to identify the most sustainable option. 

This is an example of a comparative LCA study.

Which note-taking method will make the difference? 

For this deep dive, we compare two note-taking methods using a life cycle assessment (LCA). First, the timeless pen and paper combination. For this assessment we used a regular notebook with a soft cover and some ballpoint pens. The second was a more modern take on the age-old classic: a whiteboard book with erasable pages and non-permanent marker. 

Once we calculate the environmental impacts, it will be compared to the impacts of other products, to put the impact in perspective. For that comparison, the climate change impacts will be compared to a reMarkable, a tablet that is specifically marketed as a digital note-taking device that feels like paper. 

Impression of the remarkable.
This is the reMarkable

Finally, we will compare those CO2 impacts to those of an iPad as well1. At the end, this should give us a clear picture of each method's impacts.

How do we approach this assessment?

To compare the environmental impacts, we will use a life cycle assessment according to the method recommended by the European Commission: The Product Environmental Footprint (PEF). To use this method, we need to clarify several variables.

- Scope: Before we begin, let’s define the scope of our assessment. The scope determines which stages of a product’s life cycle are included in our calculations. For the most complete picture we will use a cradle-to-grave scope. This scope includes production, distribution, use, and end-of-life of a product.

- Functional unit: The functional unit serves as a performance measure for the product. It is used to communicate the impact of a product for a specific use case. For this LCA the functional unit is six years of light and consistent journaling (250 words/day)2. Six years is based on the reference product, which in this case is the reMarkable tablet, that may have an average lifetime of six years.

- Impact Categories: these are the aspects of the environment that are impacted by our products. The PEF has a total of 16 impact categories. To keep our assessment concise and relevant, we’ll focus on key impacts: climate change, ecotoxicity, land use, fossil resource use, and water use.

Where does the environmental impact originate from?

Using publicly available data, we created digital twins of our note-taking products to compare their impacts. A digital twin is a model including everything that is part of a product's life cycle. Let’s go through the results using a relative impact figure. The figure below shows the product with the highest impact at 100% for each impact category. Products with lower impact are shown as a percentage of the highest impact.

A graph showingRelative environmental impacts of three note-taking methods.
Figure 1: Relative environmental impacts of three note-taking methods

Immediately, the paper notebook can be seen to have higher impacts among all categories except for water use. As the use phase of the reusable whiteboard notebook requires the pages to be cleaned with a detergent, quite a lot of water is used as a result 3.

We modeled the notebook with two cleaning scenarios: one using only detergent and another using only tap water. While detergent is more effective at cleaning the pages, using tap water significantly reduces the notebook’s overall impact. The actual use scenario can be a mix of both, differing per person. Although altogether, our assessment shows that the whiteboard notebook performs better.

What is the Climate Change impact of the different methods?

Overall, the impact of the two analogue note-taking devices differs a little bit. However, this difference becomes much less pronounced when we compare it to electronic note-taking devices. This can be seen in the next figure, which shows the CO2-eq impacts of the two note-taking methods, along with the impact of a reMarkable tablet and an iPad. This is shown per life cycle stage.

Similar to paper, the reMarkable has high production phase impacts, although its intensity is much higher. The power draw of an average laptop used for writing at our office is around 30W. Compared to our laptop, the reMarkable uses a lot less electricity, thus resulting in much lower emissions in the use phase.

A graph showing the Climate Change impacts of four note-taking methods (expressed in kg CO2-eq).
Figure 2: Climate Change impacts of four note-taking methods (expressed in kg CO2-eq)

How your behaviour may affect the impact

All in all, what can we take from this assessment? No matter how much paper you save, if you buy an electronic device, its environmental impacts will be substantial. Additionally, the way you take notes also contributes to your total impact. 

If you take notes more infrequently, the method with the lower production impact is best; in this case that’s the whiteboard notebook. But if you write a lot more, the environmental impacts from the cleaner and the additional ink required will increase your impact. Then it may make more sense to use paper or a device you already have. 

Curious to see how much you’d need to write to reach this trade off, we assessed how much you need to write to reach a break-even allocation point for the climate change impact. With the impact calculated here this break-even allocation would be reached using a reMarkable, when the user writes more than 10 pages or 2500 words a day. This is assuming the tablet is used for writing only. If the device is also used as an e-reader, the avoided emissions from producing a book can also be considered. 

What about my laptop?

As mentioned at the beginning, most people are quick to consider taking notes on a laptop. So knowing the impacts of paper note-taking now, how does a laptop stack up? In the figure below, you can see a comparison between the two analog methods and two scenarios.

The scenarios show the impact of a laptops use phase using either Dutch wind electricity or laptops using the Dutch average gray electricity mix. The figure shows that using what you have can reduce your carbon footprint. However, it also highlights how vital it is for us to switch to renewable electricity.

A graph showing the Climate Change impacts of the note-taking methods compared to laptops (expressed in kg CO2-eq).
Figure 3: Climate Change impacts of the note-taking methods compared to laptops (expressed in kg CO2-eq)

Some last notes

As with most environmental comparisons, the R-ladder should be considered and the more additional production can be avoided either by eco design or refusal, the better the environmental impact.

If you already have something to take notes with, whether that is a Laptop, reMarkable or whiteboard notebook, using that method will be the most sustainable option. If you really use a lot of paper, a reMarkable could be the way to save emissions. And if you use something like a reMarkable for reading books, you will reach the carbon break-even point even quicker. 

Ultimately, the results show that the environmental impact of note-taking methods really depends on how you use each product. Are you trying to be more aware of your actions' environmental impact? Try to see how you use the resources around you, not just the paper but all other resources too. After all, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. 


1 reMarkable and Apple have done separate assessments to which we can compare ours:

2 Within the six years of use we model the two notebooks as follows:

  • Paper based notebooks: To write 250 words a day, we calculated that 36 A5 Notebooks will be required. For simplicity, we chose for lined-paper notebooks with a thin cardboard covers. The pens required are also taken along. Since pen use is slightly more difficult, we modelled the pen and paper combination with a pack of 20 Bic Crystal pens. We considered these two products a package and thus modelled them in the production phase.
  • Whiteboard paper: We modelled the whiteboard book to have 20 pages and two non-permanent pens. Instead of modelling the repurchasing of pens, we included a refill station that Staedtler offers to allow users to refill their pens. To clean the pages, we also included a cleaning solution and wipe that is often included by default when purchasing reusable notebooks. Since the pen, notebook, cleaner and wipe are expected to come in a package, we modelled them in the production phase. The refill station and additional cleaner were modelled in the use phase.

3 Over the six years of using the whiteboard notebook, we estimated that 750 ml of cleaner would be used.

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This article is written by:
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