Five ways to cut paper usage

The "paperless office" is as difficult to achieve now as it was when the phrase was coined in 1975.

Johannesburg, 26 Jun 2008
Read time 3min 50sec

Can you believe that the phrase, the "paperless office" has been around for 33 years? It was in May 1975 that a scientist at PARC, Xerox's research institute, coined the phrase.

George Pake, head of PARC, predicted that by 1995, people would invoke and view documents on computer screens rather than on paper.

This vision has remained impossible to achieve, and while people do in fact view documents on-screen, it is common cause that today more paper is produced and consumed in offices than ever before.

People just love paper. They frustrate Pake's vision by taking e-mails from the screen, printing them out and either filing the printouts or discarding them after one viewing. For many people, an electronic version of a document does not have the same gravitas as a printout. They crave the tactile, two-dimensional nature of paper. And so they print out documents in greater volumes each year.

To put this into context, in 1975 the average US office worker consumed 29kg of paper a year. By 1999, this figure had soared to 68kg, dropping to 60kg by 2003, according to research firm RISI. While no similar research exists for the South African market, local office workers' consumption patterns are likely to be similar.

How much does this paper add up to? 1.5 trillion pages a year are printed out in the US, a stack of paper close on 160 000km high. The cost is staggering, more than $8 billion just on paper: and for every dollar spent printing documents, another $6 is spent handling and distributing paper. (These figures exclude the cost of owning or renting and operating office equipment, and of toner and other supplies.)

Sorry fate

1.5 trillion pages a year are printed out in the US, a stack of paper close on 160 000km high.

Rob Abraham is MD of Bytes Document Solutions.

These trends fly in the face of the rest of people's information-consuming patterns. Most people today get their news via the Internet, a fact which is negatively impacting all print publications.

People certainly don't print out news articles by rote, but they print out e-mails, business documents, spreadsheets, reports, minutes ... and having printed out these documents, they either file them, with concomitant storage and management costs, or dump them within 24 hours: Xerox research shows this is the fate of half of all documents printed out in offices.

Here are five guidelines for reducing the amount of paper consumed:

1. Think twice before printing. Is it really necessary, or are you printing that e-mail or Word document because of the need for the reassuring comfort of paper?

2. Scan and e-mail rather than photocopy. Cut out paper at source, and you'll play a significant role in reducing its proliferation.

3. Consolidate the number of printers and other paper-generating devices in the office. Simply having fewer devices will reduce the ease and therefore the frequency with which people print. Consolidating many devices onto one multifunction device makes good business sense, too, as it reduces the cost of managing many devices, cuts power consumption, and less floor space is needed. In addition, today's multifunction devices make it easier to track who's printing what, to allocate costs, to enforce rules as to what may and what may not be printed, and to curtail the corporate habit many people have of not collecting their printouts.

4. Print both sides of each page, where at all possible. Duplex printing can and should be set as standard practice, as this will immediately reduce by 30% to 40% the volume of printouts.

5. Redefine the business in such a way that paper-intensive processes can be replaced with digital processes. As an example, pressure brought to bear on the US government after 9/11 saw the ushering in of the practice known as truncation, which sees cheques being withdrawn from distribution and images of the cheques accepted as legally binding in their stead. This decision has saved companies billions, and other, equally paper-intensive industries can benefit similarly through a change to their processes.

As the cost of doing business soars, and as inflation climbs, and the spectre of an economic slowdown looms ever larger, it is sound practice to cut expenses wherever possible, and a focus on paper reduction is a great place to start.

* Rob Abraham is MD of Bytes Document Solutions.

See also