Q:What's more environmentally friendly, traditional or digital photography?
A:Back in the day, you'd need a donkey-drawn cart just to carry all your photographic equipment around. Weighing in at 50 kilograms, the first Daguerrotype camera in 1839 was not for the masses. Now everyone and their kid has one. (You can even buy a My Little Pony or SpongeBob SquarePants point-and-shoot.) While most people are making the switch to digital without a second thought, it's a good idea to stop and assess which tech is actually greener.
Conventional camera users may have cursed the mounds of film wasted over the years because of low light, blinking kids or severed heads. But what about the eco implications of processing all those shots? Fortunately, the volume of chemicals needed to print Grandma's birthday party pics has dropped from just under 2 litres to 3 ounces since 1968 (a whopping 96 per cent reduction). Nonetheless, those chemicals still add up.
Of most concern to the city is silver, a water pollutant (found in film, then transfered to photoprocessing water). Most commercial mini-labs have silver recovery machines. The metal is then refined and recycled into things like jewellery. The rest of the chems in the processing stew are said to be non-toxic and largely biodegradable in municipal water treatment plants (although sewer overflows might mean some end up in lakes and streams - a very bad thing).
If you're one of those dinosaurs with a home darkroom, don't think you can just dump your chemicals down the drain (though most of you do - shame on you!). You should be keeping your used chemicals in jugs and calling up a silver recovery company like Environmental Control Systems (1-705-725-0940) that will pick them up for proper disposal for an annual fee of about $225.
All you veg-heads out there should know that film is made using a gelatin base (aka from the collagen in cow or pig bones, hooves and connective tissue).
And if you're throwing out pictures of your ex, know that your prints aren't recyclable, thanks to the chemical coating on the paper.
What about digital? Well, traditionally these cams have been serious battery hogs. But, technology has been advancing in leaps and bounds, so almost all new digies use rechargable batteries and chew through them much less quickly than models from two or three years ago. At this moment, Sony Cyber-Shots are said to be almost twice as efficient as other brands, but at the rate of camera tech evolution, this info might already be obsolete. (Just kidding.)
While printing digital images does not involve the same chemical bath as film, inks are still used to print those pics. Most are water-based, but some pigments contain toxic heavy metals and ozone-depleting VOCs. (Epson says its inks are VOC- and heavy-metal-free.) Still, those prints can and should be recycled in your blue bin. And they can also be printed on Energy Star-certified ink jet printers available pretty much anywhere you'd buy office equipment or at camera stores like Henry's on Church, and Vistek on Queen East (from $139). Make sure to refill or recycle your old ink cartridges.
Realistically, though, digital cams have the upper hand ecologically in the sense that most people don't bother printing 95 per cent of their pictures. Sure, some would say, "Well, you're sucking up computer power to look at those images." But the truth is, we all have computers anyway; few of us bought them just to upload digital shots of our dogs rolling in the neighbours' flower beds.
Scanners, by the way, are generally all super-low energy consumers. Many use only 17 to 20 watts of energy and those with Energy Star logos go into sleep mode quickly.
The main downside to digital is partly our own fault: people keep buying new ones all the damn time when it's really not necessary. Don't be lured by promos telling you to trade in your old digie within the year for discounts on a jazzier model. Only buy what you need. If you're primarily shooting family pics and printing standard 4-by-6 images, you don't need more than 4 or 5 megapixels (6 max). The more pixels and added features your camera has, the more batteries it sucks up.
Both digital or traditional point-and-shoots can contain toxic components like lead, cadmium and mercury in their lenses, sensors and displays, but most companies have switched to lead-free solder in recent years and have to phase out other nasty heavy metals for their European markets by next summer. Many will do the same worldwide. (Sony already has.)
But detailed reports of emissions reductions and eco initiatives do not a green company make. Film and digital camera maker Kodak has long been embroiled in a battle with eco activists regarding methylene chloride (a toxic solvent) pollution around its industrial park in Albany, New York.
What's clear is that single-use cameras might be the greenest option of all. Despite being called disposable, they're actually returned to the manufacturer and their parts are either ground down and remoulded or just reused about 10 times. In fact, they have the highest recycling rate of any consumer product.
If you're getting rid of an old camera, try selling it to a store like Henry's, Vistek or Kominek Camera on College. If no one will buy it, most corporate headquarters, like Sony's on Gordon Baker Road, will recycle it for you. If you're willing to hold your breath (and your camera) for a few years, Ontario should be coming out with a province-wide electronics recycling program.
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