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

Discussion in 'Casual Photo Conversations' started by kdghantous, Apr 21, 2008.

  1. 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

    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. :)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. "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.
  5. 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.
  6. Having a longer view of the world tells me one thing. Everything is disposable. People included. Nothing we do is environmentally friendly.
  7. "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.
  8. 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...
  9. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    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.
  10. 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.
  11. What is the point? You might as well compare the greenhouse effect of automobile CO2 emissions to that of methane from horse farts. We're not going back to either.
  12. Both Glenn and Walt have it exactly right --especially Walt's comment about fresh water, but I debate some of the other premises in this thread.

    "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 for 50 years."

    Prove it.

    Most film cameras last for "50 years" because they frankly aren't used that often. Film cameras that are used hard, like all machines, wear out. I wore out Nikon F, F2 (motorized), F4 and an F5 bodies in around than 6 years each.

    "Lots of paper is used, just like with film photography"

    I have strong problems with that assertion. Film, paper and chemistry manufacturers built their entire business models on you making and then printing the photos you didn't want. Per person, far fewer prints are made today than were just three to 5 years ago.

    Plus with more paper being used by the old method meant you have the additional environment costs of tree farming, transportation the felled timber to the mills, and the waste and pollution from the paper making process. Add to that the truly toxic waste pollution from silver mining and refining. Add to that the pollution and political costs of hydrocarbon exploitation, transportation, and refining.

    The main "toxic chemical" in film and paper processing is silver. In the USA commercial photo labs from at least the 1980s onward were required to have silver recovery systems to keep it out of the waste water. Many big labs had installed them well before that so they could make money from what would otherwise go down the drain.

    All of this stuffs has direct consequences not only for that vague abstraction called the "environment" but direct health effects for each of us as individuals and the related economic costs as well.

    As Glenn points out everything we do has environmental consequences these days there are more of us, we are generally fatter, and we live longer. This just to me seems to be a grossly imbalanced situation that can't last for much longer. I have a 5 year old daughter and I really think about every day what the world will be like as she grows up. My wife and I try to make decisions based on how we can slow down our individual poisoning of the planet. We chose to live close to her job so that she has a short commute (my business has always been based out of my house or at least near enough that I can walk or bicycle to). We don't have television (fewer wasted watts as well as freeing up a lot of time). Our cars are fuel efficient. We set our thermostat to a level of reasonable comfort and don't fiddle with the settings. We buy as much organic food as we can -even though it costs a little more. We compost most of our food scraps (except for meat). We recycle most of the paper and plastic products and packaging materials that come into our house. (the result of composting and recycling is that we only fill up the "herby curby" trash can about once a month -- meaning we add that much less weight and volume to our local landfills. Electronics do get recycled not thrown out. And as we live in an area of the USA that is now suffering from water shortage we use "gray water" from our baths and showers to flush the toilets and water the yard. That not only saves water it saves us money.

    In fact all of these "eco-friendly" steps save us money immediately--especially the short commute.

    None of these are big things. I think I'm lazy by nature but doing these things isn't hard.

    Sorry for the long rant.
  13. The environmental impact of making digital cameras is almost as bad as that of making computers. There are huge companies involved now in recovering precious metals from PCBs, MBs, RAMs etc., of the discarded computers. They also consume a lot of energy in the process. We may not perceive the impact because most production and recovery processes are centralized in a few manufacturing units, mostly hidden from the common gaze. Many of the plastics used in these are not bio-degradable, either!
    I think there are good and bad effects in both. No serious study has been done yet to compare them on a one to one functional item or per unit basis.
  14. The above statement sums it up pretty well

    Wanna go green? Stop living

    "My wife and I try to make decisions based on how we can slow down our individual poisoning of the planet"
    In no way do I want to discourage you because it's commendable what you're trying to do (besides, like you said it saves money). But do you really think that it makes a difference when you live in a country that's responsible for 25% of the world's CO2 emmisions? Where the price of gas is kept very low. Look at the fuel consumption per head and/or American cars. Driving pick-ups and SUV's has been fashionable now for years. What do you need them for in a city?
    Wanna make a difference, then get your politicians into gear. Where I live the council splits up the waste and recycles almost everything. We pay taxes for that and on a larger scale it can make a difference.

    Back to the question at hand. Although I sometimes miss making fine art prints in my darkroom (the wet variety) my lungs are grateful that I now can do it sitting behind a computer. That's what's really important to me.

    Also it's not how long a digital camera lasts but just as it is with computers most people always will want bigger and better. I went from 1,2 mp to 3 to 6 to 10 to 12 mp now as have most photographers I know. Did a camera last 20 years before on average now it's more like 20 months.

    Could be worthwhile to do a survey how many digital camera's the people here on PN have. We may be in for a surprise. (5 for me)
  15. Well, I personally wish more products were made with less plastic and more metal. We are a society/culture obsessed with plastic replacing glass and metal (both materials being more recyclable and eco-friendly).

    I'm all for being "green" when green is green .. and not gray. The formulation of plastics is every bit as detrimental to the environment as chemical processes of old, maybe more so. People are deluding themselves to believe that new processes are making a significant impact .. when the actual manufacturing of the products we use everyday pollute and don't degrade in our lifetimes.

    Consider this. Computer technology saves paper - false; we now consume more paper than ever before (at work and at home); electricity (non-nuclear) - demand has increased dissproportionately to population in the last century. Gasoline - you'd think consumption would go down, wrong again .. average family has 2+ cars.

    There is a reason manufacturing has been displaced to the 3rd world areas where environmental laws are lax .. that way we get what we want without guilt. If we use electricity (coal) we pollute; we drive or use plastic products ..we pollute.

    Since most, if not all of us, are big consumers of plastic cameras, computers, electricity and paper .. and use gas powered machines for transport to our photo shoots .. vs. walking/riding a bicycle, or riding a horse .. well, we all contribute to the problem.

    I disagree that the volume of cheap, good, used digital cameras has made 35mm equivalents almost worthless, thus creating junk and landfill .. is this what public schools are teaching!

    I'd much rather have landfills filled with things that decompose; metal and glass is reusable, but our expensive digital 35mm equivalents that are discarded with greater frequency than any metal 35mm camera ever was .. along with the computers, scanners, and plastic assessories .. that's the problem. Our used digtal cameras will be occupying the landfill next to the plastic bumpers of our Fords and Chevys .. and convenience and continued consumption remains paramount for more plastic.

    It seems we've all shared in the problem. We buy milk,coke and pepsi in plastic milk jugs which goes into the landfill too; our camera backpacks are now being made of recycleable plastic bottles, and they too end up in landfills before they are worn out .. they market this as recycled .. I consider it merely displacement of the problem.

    Camera manufactures are merely responding to consumer demand. Film canisters used to be metal, not plastic; film chemistry pollution could be rendered inert through manufacturing/disposal methods .. but I guess its just easier to ignore that and delude ourselves into believing that plastic manufactured in China, assembled in Taiwan and sold in the USA is more eco-friendly .. I guess it is for us anyway .. and the consumption and demand continues; and blue skies continue to become gray.

    No, I don't think in the very least that using a digital vs. metal 35mm camera is making the environment cleaner .. or that filling our landfills with plastic keyboards, monitors, computer boxes (the digital assessories needed for a digital camera) is any more eco-friendly than the chemical darkroom processes of old. Listen, we all look for easy answers to complex problems .. we accept a certain amount of risk in all endeavors .. I will agree that the landfill junk is becoming annoying .. but I just happpen to see/smell more plastic than metal and glass.
  16. "But do you really think that it makes a difference when you live in a country that's responsible for 25% of the world's CO2 emissions?"

    Yes I do think it makes a difference. And it would make a larger difference if more people did too.

    Right now where I live is in the midst of a water crisis. For the past few months there has been an active state and city government campaign to reduce water usage. It has successful enough that the city's revenues from water and sewage fees have fallen enough that the city is now facing budget shortfalls in those areas and is contemplating raising rates to keep paying for the repair and updating of the old infrastructure.
  17. a vicious circle is what I would call that. Ellis, it's not so much that I disagree with you but water shortage hasn't been the only problem. Power black-outs for instance that are well documented and will probably prove to be a growing problem. Maybe I'm just a bit more cynical than you (and can vent real easy from over here) but it's the source of the problem that should be adressed. What individuals do is just a droplet on a very hot plate. Besides, as you already worked out you'll end up paying higher taxes for what's in essence good behaviour.
  18. With large inkjet there are issues with vapors; thus one has hoods to vent off the evils.
  19. "What individuals do is just a droplet on a very hot plate."

    Lots of droplets cool off even a red hot plate my overseas friend.

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