As we consider the digital camera revolution that has taken place over the last decade, most people think about it in terms of enhanced benefits for consumers. We can take a lot more pictures at much lower cost with digital cameras versus film cameras. We can also more easily manipulate and share those photos since they're all in the digital realm.
But one thing many people don't think about actually deserves mention as potentially the most profound effect of the digital camera revolution: how digital cameras greatly reduce the destructive impact on the environment compared to film cameras.
At first, you might think, "How can that be? My film camera didn't harm the environment!" Even though it wasn't your camera that harmed the environment, your film processing did indeed harm it. Any time you take your pictures to a photo processing center, that film is run through batches of chemicals. These chemicals are environmental hazards, and once they are used to process film, those chemicals must be discarded. These chemicals include both developer solutions and fixer solutions.
All film photo processing centers use these chemicals. The question is, what do they do with these chemicals after they use them? According to environmental protection standards, they have to dispose of these chemicals in an environmentally sound way. That can mean trapping them in absorbent materials designed to render the chemicals inert and then disposing of those materials in a landfill. But more often than not, because of the increased expense involved in such endeavors, many film processing companies just pour the chemicals down the drain.
Don't believe me? Just ask anyone who has worked in a film processing company. While certainly the bigger and better known companies probably adhere to the environmental laws, many of the smaller, locally-owned companies don't. As an experiment, one day I went to a local film processing company and asked what they did with their chemicals after they were done using them. The answer? "We pour them down the drain!" And that means these chemicals enter the water supply and go downstream.
Quiz time: what do you get when you have 1,000 film developing companies and industrial chemical producers all breaking the rules and dumping chemicals into the river? You get the lower Mississippi river, which is of course a horrifying stream of man-made pollution that no one would want to swim in or drink... but yet provides the water for many of the cities downstream along the river (not to mention that the whole mess empties into the Gulf of Mexico, which is probably why the fish in the Gulf are too loaded with heavy metals to even consider eating...)
Another interesting angle on all of this is what happens in international waters, because cruise ships don't have to adhere to U.S. environmental protection standards. We already know that cruise ships dump raw sewage into the open ocean on a regular basis, but that's not even the worst part of it. They also dump film developing chemicals into the open ocean. This is done routinely: it's part of the regular process on world famous cruise lines. They develop your film for all the pictures you took on Aruba or the Cayman Islands or the Virgin Islands and then they pump the polluting chemicals to the ocean water. And we wonder why our oceans are dying and our coral reefs are dying at a rate faster than rainforest clear-cutting...
Back to digital cameras: it is pure coincidence, I think, that the upsurge in digital camera use is having a positive environmental impact. With digital photography, we no longer need to use all of those chemical solutions for developing photographs.
This is just one of many positive impacts of the digital camera revolution. But skeptical consumers might say "What about the environmental impact of all of the ink used in inkjet printers that people are printing their photos with?" And that's a reasonable question. The first part of that answer is that most of the photos taken with digital cameras stay in the digital domain (people don't print out all those photos).
As far as the inkjet ink chemistry goes, I'm willing to take an educated guess that there are solvents in those inks and those solvents should not be touched in their liquid form because they will absorbed through the skin and are probably carcinogenic. But once they dry, they're fairly safe to handle.
Regardless of the inkjet ink chemicals, the net effect of digital photography is undoubtedly positive from an environmental standpoint. Of course, most consumers don't even think about this. For most consumers, the digital camera argument is not about saving the planet, it's about getting the latest cool technology, or taking photos without the expense of physical film development. But whether or not the public really gives a hoot about the environment is beside the point in this particular case -- people are buying digital cameras in record numbers, the digital camera market continues to grow and film cameras are finally becoming obsolete. In my view, it couldn't be a moment too soon because a world without film cameras is, of course, a healthier world with fewer chemical contaminants.
One final thought: I do realize there's a potential negative impact to the environment related to the use of batteries in digital cameras. But most such batteries are rechargeable, so we're not talking about consumers chucking alkaline batteries into the landfill every week.
There's also the question of the environmental impact of manufacturing digital cameras. I'm sure that's not inconsequential, but it's probably similar to the impact of manufacturing film cameras anyway. And even high-end estimates of this manufacturing impact are relatively tame compared to the repeated destruction to the environment caused by film developer chemicals.
That's why I say the digital camera revolution is a net positive for the environment.