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Magazine — 06.04.21

Are Cashless Societies More Sustainable?

Money. It’s become a historical staple in modern society, a supposed-upgrade from the bartering and trade system that preceded it. Replacing physical currencies, such as paper money and coins, leads to a more sustainable society. When you see this statement, do you feel something off about it? A common assumption made about the transition to digital currencies or a society purely based on credit cards, is that it will save the environment. Let’s explore however, how this statement might be somewhat inaccurate.

In a study done in the United Kingdom, the Bank of England Lifecycle Assessment found their main concern about the usage of physical cash to be the fact that ATMs use a significant amount of electricity – by 2030, as the country begins to decarbonize its grids, this isn’t expected to be a key area of concern. The resources used to make physical paper notes was also an area of concern, however changing the material to polymer was found to increase the total lifecycle of the notes and have an overall positive impact on emissions.

A study done in the Netherlands suggests that debit card transactions – if the payment terminals themselves are transitioned to utilize less electricity – is one of the more environmentally friendly changes. Smartphones, however, are projected to be one of the biggest culprits contributing to damaging the environment. Why? It’s because every single message, call, or picture uploaded onto the Internet, has to be processed through a data center. The more smartphones and pieces of technology that are utilized in this process, the more electricity being used.

Smartphones in themselves are extremely wasteful, due to their disposable nature. It has been observed that the average consumer only uses one cellphone for an average of 12-24 months. This is evident by the speed at which new phone models are being introduced into the market; Apple has been releasing new iPhone models every year

It is currently estimated that the paper production of physical cash equates to roughly 13% of the global harvest of forestry. However, the paper industry is one of the smallest contributors to global emissions, and once alternative electricity options are explored, the carbon footprint of cash overall should reduce further.

In this article, the following is stated: “Computers, mobile phone networks, and data and server centers are partly responsible for the destruction of over 600 square miles of forest in the US alone, due to their unprecedented consumption of electricity.” To create a single microchip, an extensive amount of resources tied into the coal industry have to be utilized. Precious minerals and resources also are involved in this process, ones that cannot be replaced easily.

One would believe that using the Internet is more sustainable, such as using e-readers, payment apps, and online banking. But in reality, it isn’t sustainable at all and can damage the environment immensely.

However, to confront the real issue here, we need to look at our consumption habits. On average, in a single year, we use 1.7 planets’ worth of resources. Before the pandemic, one could often see newsreels of people freaking out about sales. YouTube stars rose from a culture that encouraged massive hauls of fast fashion clothing. The money issue is only a small part of the puzzle.

By decreasing consumption, not only will the need for a large number of transactions (and thus electricity usage) be minimized, but the extensive impacts from mass resources used for single-use products can be restricted. Oil may be used to fuel the production of the good, there may have been underpaid laborers involved in the making, and the composition of the product can be detrimental to the environment.

At the end of the day, a cashless society might appear more sustainable, but in the long-run cash may potentially be more environmentally friendly, especially with the rapidly growing and innovative developments we see in renewable energy sources.   

Ashley Hajimirsadeghi is a writer and artist based in Baltimore and New York City. Her work often deals with intergenerational trauma, utilizing cinema from a cultural, sociological, and socioeconomic lens, and the impacts of urbanism and loneliness. An undergraduate at the Fashion Institute of Technology studying International Trade, she hopes to advocate for sustainable and ethical practices in the global marketplace.

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