This "Sustainable Jew" column originally appeared in the Canadian Jewish News May 12, 2011
We are now in “sphirat ha-omer,” the count-up to Shavuot—the time of the giving of our Torah.
Our study and transmission of our Written and Oral Laws ("Torah Shebichtav" and "Torah Sheba'al Peh," respectively) has benefitted from technological advancement. We are known as the “People of the Book”—five books of Moses, 24 books of Tanakh, countless written commentaries—but many are beginning to find the content of these books moving from paper to electronic form, soon making us “People of the PDF”.
Historically, Jews have written and accessed their Judaic texts in a physical form. For example, klaf (parchment made from the skin of a kosher animal) is the required medium for Torah Scrolls. As written media developed—papyrus, cloth, vellum and paper—Jews began utilizing those media to write commentaries or carry their own personal copy of such books. With the advent of modern technologies, many Jews now use an electronic tablet or smartphone to access prayers or daily study sessions during the week. Mishna Brurah? There’s an App for that.
We are increasingly living our lives—both Jewish and Secular—through our electronic devices. At first thought, it seems that relying on an electronic copy of a book may be the more “eco-friendly” or “green” solution. The production of paper uses many natural resources—water, wood, glue, energy—and the medium itself has a limited capacity—only so many words can fit in one book. Electronic devices, alternatively, have a seemingly infinite capacity to store information and the files stored on such devices and relatively cheap reproduce. However, the manufacture, use and disposal of electronic devices and the hard drives that are used to save and record content can have a significant energy consumption footprint: no matter which medium one prefers, the issue of sustainable energy and resource consumption is always at play.
For many reasons—Shabbat observance, ease of access, personal preference—many of us will continue to read and collect paper versions of our favourite books and seforim. From a sustainability perspective, there remains a role for paper, as a biodegradable, renewable, sustainable product made from trees.
In order to minimize impact on the environment, the paper used by a publisher to print books, reports and documents should come from sources which themselves have already been recycled, thus minimizing the impact on existing forest stock. If any of these publications contain holy words, they cannot be recycled, only buried, following the principals of “shaimos” or “genizah” which require that such books be stored and properly buried to allow for natural decomposition.
Jewish organizations such as schools, social service and fundraising agencies that use paper based communications and do not print holy words avoid the need for the documents to be buried. They have both the choice of paper to be used, and the opportunity to recycle the paper after use.
Next month, as we get closer to Shavuot, we will explore the lifecycle of paper and the options and impacts of the paper we choose to use as the “People of the Book”.