Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The (Not So) Paperless Office

Our production and consumption of paper is destructive to both our environment and humanity. Yet, alongside with the digitization of information we continue to produce and consume more and more paper. The global consumption of paper has increased 20 fold over the last century and has tripled in the last 30 years alone. One report showed that our paper consumption increased with over 93% during the period 1983 - 2003. Despite having access to technologies which allow us to produce, distribute and consume information digitally, we now print more than ever.

Let’s start with some facts in order to get some perspective on what this increased consumption of paper means in terms of resource usage:
  • Paper accounts for 42% of industrial forest use. Our consumption of printing and writing paper amounts to around 30% of the total paper and paperboard production. Newspapers account for about 10% (source: IT-Energy)
  • On average one ton of uncoated non-recycled printing and office paper uses 24 trees. A ream of typical office paper (500 sheets) uses about 6% of a tree (Source: Conserveatree)
  • The typical U.S. office worker uses more than 10,000 sheets of paper per year, which is about 2 cases of paper per employee. (Source: InformIT)

So why is it important to reduce our consumption of paper?

One reason why organizations should encourage reduced consumption of paper is the cost of managing paper:
“A 2005 study by the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance estimated that associated costs could be as much as 31 times the purchasing cost of paper, which includes not only actual price, but storage, copying, printing, postage, disposal, and recycling.” (Source: InformIT)
Although reducing costs always appeals to organizations, it is really the environmental costs we should care about. Again, here are some facts that speak for themselves:
  • Most of the world’s paper supply, about 71 percent, is not made from timber harvested at tree farms but from forest-harvested timber, from regions with ecologically valuable, biologically diverse habitat. (Toward a Sustainable Paper Cycle: An Independent Study on the Sustainability of the Pulp and Paper Industry, 1996)
  • Tree plantations host about 90 percent fewer species than the forests that preceded them. (Allen Hershkowitz, Bronx Ecology, p. 75, 2002)

(Source: Environmental Paper Network)

Less apparent is maybe the impact the production of paper such as office printing paper has to human health.

For the production of one piece of A4-paper about 10 litres of water is used. When you’re printing a 50-page report, you’re actually wasting 500 litres of water. Now consider this:
“About 5 million people die each year from poor drinking water, poor sanitation, or a dirty home environment -- often resulting from water shortage. Of a population of roughly 6.1 billion, more than 1 billion lack access to potable water. We need 2-3 litres per day, and that’s just drinking water.” (Source: Water Woes)
In the western world we have externalized much of our water footprint. Much of the production of water-intensive goods like paper we consume now happens elsewhere in the world.

Avoiding printing that 50-page report would save enough water to satisfy one day's need for drinking water for about 150 people. That's based on the needs of grown-ups, so the number of children that would have their need for fresh water satisfied would be even higher.

Considering the many negative impacts of paper consumption and that much of this consumption comes from printing, we should all ask ourselves if it’s that much of a sacrifice to read more information on-screen without printing it, to always print on two sides and to spend more effort on proof-reading before printing to avoid re-printing.

With cloud storage enabling access to your content from anywhere, mobile broadband, and devices optimized for on-screen reading, there aren't very many excuses left for reducing our consumption of paper. Yet we always seem to find some excuse that helps us rationalize the habit of printing and using paper.

There are many simple things that you and I can do to stop this development. Mostly it is about change our automated behaviors; our habits. The most effective way to make us change our behaviors is to make it easier to do right and harder to do wrong. Here are some simple actions to take:
  • Set a PDF writer as the default printer.
  • Place the printer far away from the workplaces at the office.
  • Set a limit to the number of copies that can be printed per job, something which is possible on many printers
  • Consider reporting printer use by dept or user (credit to JP De Vooght)
  • Incorporate video into documents, paper can't play video (credit to Pat Ferdinandi).
When you really need to print something, you could do the following to reduce the impact printing has on the environment and human health:
  • Proofread everything carefully on screen before hitting the print button.
  • Set the default to print on both sides of paper.
  • Use only 100% recycled paper.

Most importantly, we have to get used to consuming information on-screen instead of on paper. Here is some practical advice that might help you make that shift (it has helped me):

  • Backup your data so you don't feel the need for a hard copy. There are many cloud-based and affordable services for this.
  • Learn how to take notes by typing on a tablet or smartphone.
  • Bring your notebook, tablet or smartphone from which you can access materials needed during the meeting instead of bringing printouts.
  • Use whiteboards if you need to illustrate something and the take a photo of it for documentation.
  • Cancel your newspaper subscription and consider paying for an online subscription instead.
  • Buy a book reader or tablet that offers good readability and mobility.
And remember - please don’t print articles like this!


  1. A couple of quick calculations based on your stats:

    10,000 sheets per year
    = 12 trees (8.5 forest-harvested trees and 3.5 tree-farmed trees)

    = 100,000 ltrs of water/year
    = drinking water for 100 people

  2. It would be perfect...a paperless office. Nowadays it should not be an issue, it is just a matter of adapting to the mindset.