Whatever happened to the paperless office?

Paper consumption is expected to double in the next 14 years as the technology industry is still ‘pulling up trees’

The paperless office was a great idea, wasn’t it? On paper that is. Futurologists promised us clean, uncluttered home and work environments. Instead, we’re all drowning in a sea of poisonously bleached, pulped dead trees.

The pollution caused by paper alone is bad enough (while you were reading that last paragraph the world produced another 199 tons of paper, consuming 64 million litres of water and putting carcinogenic dioxins at everyone’s fingertips, according to research) but the information overload is arguably even worse. Between now and 2030 our consumption of paper will double, according to information management group AIIM’s research paper.

Then there’s the toner problem and the packaging that comes with printing. When carbon is melt mixed with a polymer such as styrene acrylate copolymer it can produce formulated granules (used in toner) that can be softened by heat and become fused to your skin. The electrostatic properties make it inadvisable to clean up toner with a conventional home vacuum cleaner as static discharge from charged toner particles can ignite dust and explode. It can also be an irritant to people with respiratory conditions like asthma or bronchitis.

Research by the Queensland University of Technology showed laser printers emit sub-micrometer particles associated with respiratory diseases. Separately, the University of Rostock found that microscopic particles in toner are as carcinogenic as asbestos.

Let’s not even get onto the pricing of toner cartridges, which is another massive source of waste, both to the environment and your budget. On average 13% of the toner in each cartridge is wasted (it used to be 25%).

The toner is more expensive, per drop, than vintage champagne and now that companies are selling cheaper cartridges to undercut the big brands, the rate of pollution has been ramped up. While vendors have dropped their prices to compete, the amount of ink in the average cartridge has shrunk dramatically so they contain a fraction of the ink they’d hold a decade ago. A top selling HP cartridge that had 42ml of ink and sold for £20 ($29) now sells for £13 ($19), reported The Recycler magazine, but only because it contains 5ml of ink.

So where did it all go wrong? Why are we still producing so much poisonous paper and being bled by printer makers?


Getting practical about paper

What can we do?

Some realistic assumptions would be a start. Maybe information scientist Frederick Wilfrid valued stats above human nature when he predicted the future of the paperless office back in 1978. In reality most workers can’t give up on the printed page, with 86% of British employees preferring a physical page to a virtual one (according to a survey carried out by Epson, which admittedly might be a bit biased). The majority (64%) prefer to read reports and brochures on printed paper, for the convenience of sharing (said 53%), reading (44%) and editing (41%).

Volumes of printing show no signs of decreasing in the education sector, despite attempts to increase digitisation, with 69% of teachers saying that on average they print more than 3,000 sheets of paper per term, according to document management vendor Kyocera’s research.

However, there are ways round this. Interactive projectors like the Optoma 320 USTi, for example, allow you to project your work onto a big screen and proof read it there. Which means you can get even more comfortable, sitting in an armchair and staring up at a big surface area rather than squinting into a glowing screen. You can even edit a document, since lasers will detect any outline you trace on the document with your fingers, and this information is fed back into the computer on which the file is stored. Naturally, this forces you to get out of your armchair and stand by whatever surface the image is being projected onto.

While this system has some impressive applications (it’s used in medicine and planning) it does seem like a lot of trouble to go to in order to replace paper. Besides, projectors use a lot of electricity, the specialised bulbs need replacing quite regularly and they are expensive to make, so the carbon footprint reduction achieved by not using paper would be neutralized by the use of the projector.


Paper fans

“People still like to work with paper,” says Rob Clark, Senior VP of Epson Europe. “Printing reaps wider productivity. Businesses need to provide their employees with the options to use the best technology and processes for each task.”

So paper is still a good idea on paper and in practice. There are other fixes. WorldCounts research says that using recycled paper would save 682.5 gallons of oil, 26,500 liters of water and 17 trees for every ton of paper which was re-used.  

Another pollution nullifying strategy is to use paper companies that have modified their production processes to cut the formation of dioxins. You could try and persuade your purchasing department to only buy paper marked “100% post-consumer waste recycled”. The problem is, like most trendy products, the organic option costs more and may not be genuine anyway.

The only real way to reduce paper use is to introduce a scanning culture.

Granted, adopting an electronic signature system cuts paper consumption and creates efficient digital audit trails. However, 61% of people say there is more chance of making errors when editing an electronic document than editing a print-out (again according to Epson’s study).

Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) claims to have made huge advances in productivity by cutting out paper and scanning documents. The trick, it says, is to create very specific use cases, such as the storing of medical records. “Paperless fails if it’s too broad a concept,” says a spokesman for St Helens & Knowsley Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, near Liverpool. 

Its IT resource - St Helens Health Informatics Service (HIS) - created its own in-house scanning bureau and digitized the records for two hospitals. As a result it makes £1.4m ($2m) annual savings from a one-off £1.2m ($1.8m) investment. It now has 500 doctors and 130 secretaries disciplined to use the system and has 135,000 medical records digitized. This obviates the need for hand delivering 7,000 files per week.

Scanning and cancelling print jobs can play a significant part in cutting print volumes but we have to make it easier, says Chris Strammiello, a director at Nuance’s Document Imaging Division. First we have to get past the “We’ve always done it this way” mentality, he says.

Still, the victories in the war on paper waste will be the minority, says futurist Jack Uldrich: “People understand and retain information from paper far higher than electronically.”

That’s the problem the digitizers have to tackle.



•          93% of paper comes from trees.

•          50% of the waste of businesses is composed of paper.

•          The print run of a Sunday newspaper costs 75,000 trees

•          Every tree produces enough oxygen for 3 people to breathe.

•          U.S offices use 12.1 trillion sheets of paper a year.

•          Paper accounts for 25% of landfill waste and 33% of municipal waste.

•          With all the paper the US wastes each year, Donald Trump could build a 12 foot high wall of paper from New York to California.

•          Demand for paper is expected to double before 2030.


Source: World Counts



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