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.

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