The paperless office. It is supposed to be the way of the future. All documents are supposed to be in electronic form and fewer trees are supposed to be required to keep businesses, institutions and government humming along.
Cutting down on paper use is a very good thing. World consumption of paper has grown approximately 400 per cent in the last 40 years. Nearly 4 billion trees are used annually for paper, which represents 35 per cent of the global timber harvest. Some of these trees are from managed timberlands, which practise sustainable forestry, however, a tree is a tree. Any tree not used for paper could be used for building, replacing a tree logged using less sustainable forestry practices.
So, have offices become paperless? We look around our offices and we certainly see paper. We have notebooks filled with handwritten notes keeping track of various projects, we have data from our laboratories, we have sticky notes containing phone numbers and appointments and some seemingly random numbers that we no longer remember the significance of. On the plus side, look at our e-mail inboxes. Imagine if each one of these messages was noted down on paper somewhere. Or would people just have less to say? And our computer hard drives contain hundreds of documents that were typed directly into the computer without ever having had a physical existence.
We do have to be careful in our zest to be paperless that we are really saving paper and not just wasting energy. In Europe, services are available that will intercept your personal mail, open it all for you, and send you an e-mail telling you what you got. So if you decide you do want to look at the birthday card from your Aunt Verna then you can tell them and they will scan it and e-mail you the file. As far as we can see, this does not result in a net decline in paper use, just less paper in your house. Plus there’s the increased energy of scanning all the documents, to say nothing of the fact these mail openers would have all your personal information.
We think it is unrealistic to think we can do without paper completely. We are often more comfortable working with hard copies of documents, and it is unlikely these will ever completely disappear (right now you are probably reading a hard copy rather than reading us online). Recycled paper is a good way to moderate our tree usage and has come a long way from the dingy flecked pages the first recyclers produced.
The office of the future should see the blending of increased electronic documents and hard copies on recycled paper.
However, in the effort to go paperless, some strategies such as scanning and dumping originals only saves space, not energy and not paper.
Andrew Laursen is an assistant professor at Ryerson University, studying ecosystem ecology. Sophia Dore is an environmental scientist with Conestoga-Rovers & Associates, an environmental consulting company.