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Environmental impact of digital cameras compared to film (just thinking aloud)

Karim Ghantous , Apr 21, 2008; 07:45 a.m.

Let's forget the fact that some of us upgrade our cameras every year (which isn't a bad thing as many people prefer to buy used). I got to thinking as to whether digital photography is more environmentally friendly than film. I don't know the facts but here is my reasoning and conclusion.

Most film cameras are 35mm. So lots of wasted cassettes, film spools, cardboard boxes and unwanted prints. Then there are the chemicals (I don't think they're that toxic but they must used up some amount of carbon dioxide to make and distribute them).

Then you have the consumables like film sleeves and envelopes as well as batteries (hopefully rechargeables!). Plus the fuel (if any) to drop off and pick-up film (but this can be done in tandem with other shopping).

On an individual level the impact is lessened. If you have your own darkroom you won't have wasted prints or envelopes and you won't have to travel to get your negatives. Electricity is need for the safelight and enlarger and, if you have it, the film dryer. Some people own motorized film developing machines.

However, the cameras usually last a long time unless you're using disposables (I never understood how people could buy those f-----g things). And many cameras were heavily motorized thus increasing the need for electricity.

But with digital photography you don't use chemicals. You use electricity for everything. Not just for the camera but for the computer. Most computers are bought for other reasons so cannot be seen as part of the cost of a digital camera. However they may be used for longer periods thus using more energy.

Some upgrades would be done specifically for photography. Storage needs are greater and some photographers (illogically IMHO) back-up to optical discs which are usually non-reusable and non-recyclable.

Lots of paper is used, just like with film photography, and the chemicals are the dyes and inks, not the developers, fixers and stop baths. The ink cartridges are usually thrown away after use.

Like with film cameras they only need to be made once and last for a long time. They do have more parts in them so when it's time to recycle them it will be more like dealing with a computer than a camera.

But there is more waste involved with digital cameras. The old memory cards which are impractical for use today have to be discarded. However, there aren't as many as we'd think as back then there were fewer made and sold. Memory cards of 512MB and more are still useful today. But when they fail they're effectively disposable.

So I think I've covered a lot of ground (not everything I don't think). So my conclusion: electricity is the driving force behind digital photography. Not a huge amount is needed, at least for the cameras. And some computers are very efficient. In the future you will be able to generate electricity effectively for free (e.g. solar) with low-cost equipment. So IMHO digital is the more environmentally friendly.

But there's a bit of a footnote here. The volume of cheap, good, used digital cameras has made their 35mm equivalents almost worthless, thus creating junk and landfill. Most of those old 35mm cameras won't be recycled. So in a way, film cameras have become the landfill, but through no fault of their own.

It's Monday night and I felt like a bit of a rant. Hope nobody minds. :-)


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Ronald Moravec , Apr 21, 2008; 08:05 a.m.

You forget the impact of manufacturing all the digital cameras. With a short product cycle, the cameras do not last like my film ones some of which are 50 years old. No digi will work or 50 years. I bet you can`t get repair parts after 3.

Matt Laur , Apr 21, 2008; 08:22 a.m.

Don't forget that most major office-supply chains have drop-off points for the recycling of ink cartridge, just as they do for toner cartridges. And, electricty? Don't forget climate control for film storage, and the huge amounts of tap water that usually goes into darkroom operations.

And I think I'll say that the "lots of paper is used" comment is a bit off. VERY few normal people that I know with digital cameras print anything other than the rare snapshot or enlargement.

Christopher Gervais , Apr 21, 2008; 08:24 a.m.

"The volume of cheap, good, used digital cameras has made their 35mm equivalents almost worthless, thus creating junk and landfill. Most of those old 35mm cameras won't be recycled."

Not recycled, just put on display :)

While 35mm cameras are not worth a lot, I doubt they are tossed out. Working 35mm cameras change hands, if even for a small amount of money. The non working ones get put on shelves by fools like me :)

I also agree with Ronald. The pollution involved in maunfacturing the electronics, sensors, chips, etc... I would imagine is more of an impact than tossing paper, cassettes, and mostly inert chemicals back into the earth.

Edward Ingold , Apr 21, 2008; 08:25 a.m.

The vast majority of film cameras in the last 30 years (maybe longer) were of the point-and-shoot variety. Does anyone recall a service center for these cameras :-)

The number of serious/professional shooters has always been vanishingly small in comparison.

Glenn Rasmussen , Apr 21, 2008; 08:27 a.m.

Having a longer view of the world tells me one thing. Everything is disposable. People included. Nothing we do is environmentally friendly.

Matt Needham , Apr 21, 2008; 08:57 a.m.

"But with digital photography you don't use chemicals."

All of my prints from digital are regular old C-prints and gelatin silver prints. There's still plenty of chemicals and water being used.

Steve Swinehart , Apr 21, 2008; 10:00 a.m.

There's the 7 lbs or so of lead in every computer in the form of solder, and, of course, the heavy metals on the inside of the CRT monitors, etc., etc. - and while you've tried to dissassociate digital photography from the computer - you can't really produce a photo yourself without one...

Also, there's the environmental costs associated with producing computers. Lots of water used in making the wafers for the processors, lots of toxic chemicals used in the process also...

You just haven't taken the time to really look into the entire scope of what it takes to make the equipment used for the production of digital images....of course, not looking into digital pollution fits your viewpoint better...

Jeff Spirer , Apr 21, 2008; 10:18 a.m.

The vast majority of film cameras in the last 30 years (maybe longer) were of the point-and-shoot variety.

More recently, they were of the disposable variety, i.e., more rubbish.

Walt Flanagan , Apr 21, 2008; 10:18 a.m.

I work in the semiconductor industry. There are tons of toxic chemicals used in the semiconductor manufacturing process. It also uses a lot of fresh water.

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