Everybody remember the promise of the paperless office? Anyone in front of a monitor can testify to just the opposite having taken hold. The ubiquity of the personal computer was supposed to free us from the chaotic sea of paperwork washing over our desks every day, and yet all it seems to have done is open the floodgates further.
I have worked in the online realm for a number of years and have seen it firsthand. A very prominent client of mine wanted to build a website in order to replace what had been a glossy, printed document. The aim was to become more environmentally responsible and forward-thinking. But time and again, I received feedback that the pages didn't print well. And I would get a stack of printouts with one- or two-word handwritten comments. I rarely saw feedback in digital form.
Lisa Belkin in the New York Times today writes about her personal experience of not printing notes in order to write her column, the subject of which is the measures companies and employees are undertaking to be more environmentally responsible. This is of course all well and good: recycling, turning off lights and computers, using mass transit, doing away with plastic water bottles, etc.
What I'd like to see, though, considering that the bookends of the piece are Belkin's turn away from printouts, is how corporations are encouraging their workforce to work more digitally. While paper recycling is undoubtedly a boon, how about not printing on that paper in the first place? Use Track Changes in Word documents, for example. Or learn to convert documents and screen grabs to PDFs and using Adobe's commenting features. These are just two relatively easy tasks to learn that would go an awfully long way to eradicating the waste of the highlighter and the copy machine.
Until devices such as the Kindle (in a modified form of course) become as ubiquitous as cell phones I don't see paper consumption in the U.S. going down much. Unfortunately convenience wins out over the responsible thing to do. Even then think of how many times you've had 5 or 6 sheets spread out across your desk that you're cross referencing. Are we really going to each have a stack of e-readers? Maybe a desktop that is actually a giant multi-touch monitor? Besides all this I would be interested in statistics about the environmental impact of paper production/waste. Is it really as bad as we feel like it is? Rainforests aren't clear cut so I can have post-its on my desk. I believe paper producing trees are an entirely seperate and quickly renewable crop. And then again I could have no idea what I'm talking about.
I work at a University that has made and, in some ways, made real progress toward a goal of being paper-free as much as possible. We've moved a lot of reading to screens for students -- posting handouts online via coursesites like Blackboard, for instance -- and have started utilizing e-mail to trade paper drafts back and forth. In this way, not only are we cutting down on our own use of paper (and the expense that comes with purchasing it, recycling it, all of that) but we're training a new workforce to think paper-free. Students nowadays travel with multiple electronic "readers" anyway: they're more comfortable receiving information via e-mail, text message, and Web delivery than in previous years. So I think the next ten years or so may show us that this paper-less workplace will be more of a possibility -- if only because the people who are coming up in the workplace will not have that inclination to hit print or mark up a piece of paper.
First off, great initiative. Speaking as someone who recently graduated from college, I'm 25, I can tell you that many (if not most) students will make it their first order of business to hit a lab and print off all the online handouts. The labs were, at least at the university I went to, open to anyone and did not charge for printing. In fact I had friends who would download and print off entire novels from the lab simply because it was "free". I do, however, believe that culture is starting to shift. Laptops are standard gear and every hole in the wall cafe has wi-fi. With the not-so-distant demise of wi-fi in favor of fully integrated mobile broadband I think even more limitations to online-only content will be stripped away. Climate change and environmental responsibility are also getting much more mainstream coverage than time past. Being green and eco-friendly is no longer relegated to the tree-huggers and guys out on the ocean in a rubber raft squaring off with a fishing boat. As with anything the earlier we can teach people about being responsible the more it will be come sheer force of habit and less of an "annoying inconvenience".
I know of several who will print a day's email off and file it; If they didn't, they would not sleep.
Until there is a standard format for electronic files that can't be corrupted, or changed with out those changes being recorded and who did the changes and why, we will still need to print. Anybody sign any electronic leases lately?
Everyone in the office would need a paper substitute, that could wirelessly transfer documents. Something like a slate tablet pc, but without the pc functionality and a software OS based on paper centric thinking.