Thursday, 21 June 2012

Not paperless, but paper-less

Toshiba seems to have caused something of a furore with its announcement of a "National No-Print Day". Unsurprisingly the paper industry is particularly exercised about it, with campaigns from both the pro-paper lobby Two Sides and the Printing Industries of America trade assocation which is calling for a "No Toshiba" day. As with so many sustainability decisions, paper vs. electronic media is not an easy call and the right course of action is probably a compromise.

As pro-paper campaigns point out, timber for paper is a renewable resource and plantations assist with CO2 balance. Paper's carbon footprint peaks once it has been printed, whereas a digital document creates fresh emissions every time you read it due to the energy consumed by your computer or e-reader. PIA offers some compelling statistics about the relative impacts of paper and electronic media.

We need to re-think the way we engage with documents, and use different media depending on the expected life of the content. For information that is likely to be read once and not referred to again a digital medium is probably better - it's certainly not eco-efficient to print out emails to read them, for example. Even a document which has to be archived could originate and remain in digital form unless it is likely to be referred to frequently. But printed documents are perfect for pass-on readership or for material that is intended to be read and re-read. Libraries, although in decline, are an elegant way of ensuring that we gain maximum value from the resources used in making books, and the most serious flaw of e-readers is that they prevent us from lending titles to others.

The issue of document design and production is also key. Better use of typography and layout can reduce the number of sheets needed to produce a printed document and of course it should always be printed double-sided. Paper weight, inclusion of recycled content and use of images all have a part to play in controlling the environmental impact of printed material. And we mustn't lose sight of the fact that manufacturing paper doesn't just consume trees, it also uses water, chemicals, oil and energy - and those resources are still consumed to make recycled paper. Recycling paper is important, but not as critical as making sure we don't print unneccessarily.

In my view, a No-Print Day is no bad thing as a means of drawing attention to the need to be mindful about printing, and the pro-paper and pro-printing organisations may be over-reacting. Like Earth Hour, Buy Nothing Day and so many other events the value is in making people think twice about habitual behaviours which may no longer be appropriate in a resource-constrained world.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Cradle to cradle paper

An innovative project by Banner Business Supplies closes the loop on office paper by supplying copier paper manufactured from a customer's own waste paper. Banner collects waste paper from the office (both confidential and general waste), securely shreds and de-inks it and transforms it back into blank paper for delivery back to the office it came from.

According to Banner, Closed Loop Paper uses 50% less water, 60% less energy causes 70% less air pollution than virgin paper. The process uses no bleach and the manufacturing process is fully audited. It's an impressive service - but it does depend on the customer having sufficient volume of waste paper to make the process viable. Closed Loop Paper was developed in response to demand from HMRC and currently processes around 25,000 tonnes per year.

As more organisations try to reduce their reliance on hard copy, I can foresee issues caused by the declining supplies of paper from single customers. But this concept would work really well across a whole business park or even a town or city, creating local employment opportunities as well as reducing transport impacts by recycling paper as close as possible to where the waste originates.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Why we need to stop talking about climate change

Today's scariest headline screams "The World as We Know It Is About to End, Say Some Really Frightened Scientists". Alarmist, perhaps - but it hasn't drawn the fire of the climate change deniers to anything like the extent we are used to. That may be because the study that prompted it was compiled by biologists, not climate scientists. Thanks to its focus on fossil fuels, the issue of climate change has become highly contentious, with the ranks of the oil industry and others mobilised - and well funded - to defend their livelihoods. And because it relies on projections that have no precedent, the theory of anthropomorphic global warming is vulnerable.

More robust, however, is the theory of carrying capacity. There are numerous, well-documented examples of both animal and human populations that have collapsed because they outstripped the carrying capacity of a bounded environment. We only have one planet, and no immediate prospect of colonising another. Therefore it follows with chilling logic that if our population - and its rate of consumption of finite resources - continues to increase there will come a point where there are no longer sufficient resources to sustain it.

Even for those who buy in to the science, climate change is a difficult concept to engage with. But every household already has to embrace the concept of living within its particular limits and every business has to balance the books. Economic sustainability is a good proxy for environmental sustainability and thanks to the economic crisis we're all too familiar with what happens when we live beyond our means financially. Transpose that understanding and we may just have a chance of  securing the future of humanity.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Leveraging the learning from awards

In many ways, awards can be somewhat arbitrary affairs. It's disingenuous to claim that they acknowledge the true leaders; in truth they reward only the best of those who firstly decided to enter and secondly have the skills to write a compelling submission. But they still provide a useful barometer of the innovation that is ocurring around an issue or industry sector, and their real value lies in encouraging the upstarts and showcasing best practice from which others can learn.

The Guardian Sustainable Business Awards has made this explicit with the launch of its Best Practice Exchange, where the shortlisted entries have just been published. These awards, although only in their second year, have quickly gained credibility based partly on the reputation of Guardian Sustainable Business and partly on their meticulous judging process. In fact, the judging and subsequent ceremony involved so many sustainability leaders that host Jo Confino was unsure whether it was prudent for them all to assemble in the same venue.

For those who strive for continuous improvement in sustainability, the Best Practice Exchange provides an opportunity to benchmark against the achievements of their peers and to hear the views of some of the standout entrants.