One of the reasons office print volumes have declined is that end-user organisations are under constant pressure to go paperless for environmental reasons. We’ve all seen that line at the bottom of people’s emails: “Please consider the environment before printing this email.” Then there are environmental protection advocates who present us with alarming statistics about paper consumption and global deforestation.
However, the paperless pushers only ever give us half the story and, by doing so, present a wildly inaccurate picture of what’s really going on.
So, let’s bust some myths.
Myth 1: print is destroying forests
The US cuts down 68 million trees a year to make paper. While that sounds like a shocking figure, what paperless advocates fail to tell people is that the wood and paper products industries plant 1.7 million trees a day. That means they’re planting 620.5 million trees each year—way, way more than they’re cutting.
And even though paper consumption has increased, a comprehensive 2018 study published in the science journal Nature revealed that there are actually more trees in the world than there were 35 years ago. Researchers found that between 1982 and 2016, new tree cover had offset tree cover loss by approximately 2.24 million square kilometres. That, they noted, is about the size of Texas and Alaska combined.
The paper and printing industries are in fact among the biggest causes of reforestation. Along with the aforementioned 1.7 million US-planted trees, Canada adds another 600 million seedlings each year. And according to the British Printing Industries Federation (BPIF), the managed European forests that provide 80% of the paper used by UK printers are growing by 1,500 football pitches every day.
Edward L. Glaeser, Professor of Economics at Harvard University, says, “When people use more paper, suppliers plant more trees. If we want bigger commercial forests, then we should use more paper, not less. Our policies should directly protect important wildlife habitats, not try to reduce our demand for paper.”
Myth 2: electronic communication is better for the environment than using paper
The paper, pulp and print industry is known for being one of the lowest industrial emitters of greenhouse gases, being responsible for just 1% of global emissions. The ICT industry, on the other hand, is set to be responsible for nearly 4% of global emissions by 2020, rising to 14% by 2040, according to a 2018 study from McMaster University in Canada. The carbon footprint of the global digital movement is a much bigger concern than that caused by paper-based communications.
Electronic waste is also one of the fastest growing segments in the municipal solid waste stream and currently only 15-20% of all e-waste is being recycled. Conversely, paper is one of the most recycled materials in the world, with Europe recycling 72%.
Myth 3: Print is not sustainable
Contrary to what the paperless pushers say, printing is one of the most sustainable industries there is. Apart from the fact that trees are a completely renewable energy source, there is a trend towards sustainability in the production of paper, too. The industry has made an impressive commitment to reducing clear cutting, electricity and fossil fuel consumption and emissions, and cleaning up its impact on air pollution and local water supplies.
For example, print manufacturer Novus Holdings recovers 95% of the toluene it uses to thin its inks and sells it back to the ink manufacturers for reuse. It has also been able to reduce its carbon footprint by nearly 7,000 tons by using steam instead of electricity to power some of the company’s printing presses.
If these myths are catching on, why is print still declining?
Even though people are more aware of the myths about print’s environmental impact, volumes continue to shrink. That’s because people are printing less for a different reason: efficiency. Paper in a business is a barrier to communication, systems integration, live information and file/document collaboration. Paper-based processes are slow. Transparency and visibility are minimal.
However, there is plenty of research to suggest that although print volumes will continue to decline as work processes become further digitised, paper and printing will still have a place in tomorrow’s office. It perhaps always will. Experts now predict that the office of the future will not be paperless, but paperlite.
That’s good news for the environment, not bad. If we don’t use trees, nobody will grow them.