The Paperless Office – Just a Desert Mirage?
The advent of information technology in general, and word processing in particular, brought with it the promise of the paperless office. No more need for physical files, memos and so on; stacks of paper in the office worker’s inbox, forms making their way between departments, reams of reports and statements… all these artifacts of the pre-digital world were supposed to be relegated to the annals of history. Yet, anyone that’s worked in a corporate, governmental or non-profit sector environment will know of the paper blizzard that continues to prevail. Why has the vision of paperless systems and processes remained a mirage? Why the resistance?
First, let’s spell out why we should care from an environmental standpoint. There are at least three key reasons:
Power Usage – the pulp and paper production sectors are estimated to represent 6 percent of global energy production. That’s a lot of natural resources consumed in generation and extra emissions into the atmosphere contributing to climate change.
Water Usage – One single sheet of paper requires around 13 and a half litres to produce. In a world where clean, freshwater is an increasingly scarce resource, the value of reductions here are obvious.
Land Usage & Habitat Disturbance – Whether sourced from plantations (with very little ecological value) or naturally-occurring forests, this is an impact on land and utilisation of heavy machinery that can be largely avoided. Obtaining this theoretically renewable resource represents at least one third of the world’s commercially cut timber.
(Not to mention the toxicity of most inks and toners!)
We should also put the scale of our consumption in this area into context. The product I refer to – sheets such as in the ISO A-C standard sizes, (e.g. “A4”) are consumed globally in the order of 100 million metric tons.
Our brain isn’t designed to appreciate proportion to such a large number. So, imagine the Great Pyramid of Giza for a moment.
We use 15 times its weight in paper products just of this type—let alone packaging and other forms—every single year. This is not a trivial problem.
So why haven’t we made better progress towards digitization? There are a few explanations:
The perception of comfort with reading from paper. However, modern e-reader devices employ innovative technologies to ensure an eye-friendly background (either white or parchment-like) with essentially no glare. Character size can also be readily adjusted to suit personal preference.
Attachment to traditional signatures, even though readily available and secure digital options exist.
Continuation of legacy (long-established) physical forms of forms and records. Yet, digitization methods like high-performance scanners perform highly efficient conversion while transforming text into editable form with great accuracy using Optical Character Recognition (OCR).
Intellectual property rights protection. This is a complex and undoubtedly formidable hurdle to be overcome. We’ve seen with other forms of ‘protected works’, most notably music and film/television that once digitised the illegal distribution of files can be trivial and exponential. The hard-copy form of valuable documents purged from any electronic systems (examples might be scripts, or patent) avoid this problem. The solution here lies in sophisticated, multi-level access control and encryption measures, but admittedly this is a difficult and ever-evolving problem.
The perception of security. We know, though, that unauthorized entry to facilities occurs all the time (Social Engineering is remarkably effective), and correctly implemented encryption and multi-factor authentication provides for reliable confidentiality of information.
A shortfall in appreciating threats to integrity. Accidents (e.g. fire) and natural disasters (e.g. flood) are low risk but high impact. How many organizations keep their files in multiple locations? In contrast, thoughtfully designed electronic storage systems ensure local redundancy in addition to geographically dispersed replication. When your data is stored at multiple facilities hundreds of kilometres or even continents apart, the impact of such events is, in practical terms, wholly mitigated.
We’ve established it’s not just inertia that explains our predicament. Hopefully, though, we can develop solutions where needed, realize the enormous benefits, and attain the (virtually) paperless office. This ought to be one of the least contentious efforts in the pursuit of sustainability.
As we transition, ‘closing the loop’ and recycling wherever possible makes a big difference. Consumers should support 100% recycled paper products, as well as preferring certified sustainably harvested products, such as those with the FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) seal.
For more information, see: https://www.fsc.org/