Shredding the myth of the paperless office

paper shredder paper usage in officeA common assumption in the back of every tech-head’s mind is that their use of technology is good for the environment, particularly in saving paper. Anecdotally, from my own observances, it has to be true.

This weekend, as I was waiting for my daughter’s gymnastics class to wrap up, a lot of parents, including me, were reading. But there wasn’t a paper book to be had among 25 or so adults in that room. There were regular Kindles, Kindle Fires, iPads, an iPad mini (just making sure you’re paying attention), a Nexus 7, and more phones than I could count.

Then I got home and did some work in my office. I looked around and the only paper I could find was a legal pad that I take notes down with. Everything else, including my files, is digital. I didn’t set out to create a paperless office. It just happened, logically.

It’s been more than 30 years since computers became commonplace in offices, and roughly 20 years since they reached that status in homes. With the advent of the Internet, people didn’t even need to write letters anymore. Our Postal Service is teetering on the brink of collapse, although you wouldn’t know it during election season.

These advances were supposed to rid us of all paper. The Brazilian rainforests could start growing back. We would only need garbage collection every other week, especially since everyone would be getting their information digitally. Right, Newsweek?

Yeah, about that…

Back in April, The Economist blew everyone’s minds by proclaiming that instead of worldwide paper consumption decreasing with all of our new gadgets and toys, it has actually increased by half since 1980. Americans consume 5.57 40-foot trees worth of paper per person each year. But we shouldn’t feel bad – because we’re not close to the top. We’re seventh.

stack of papers office paper usageThe premier tree killer in the world is Belgium, home of the European Union, simply because Brussels has to print all of their paperwork out in each of the 23 official languages of the Union. Each Belgian kills 8.51 trees per year.

That makes me feel a little better about not recycling as much as I should.

While we’re talking about consumption, our usage of electricity must be skyrocketing with all of our technology, right? Well, sort of, if you took “our” to mean “Asian.” Last year, global electricity usage rose by 3.5 percent over the previous year. The main cause of that was in Asia, where demand increased by 8.3 percent. On that continent, only Japan consumed less energy than the year before.

Again, the news is good for Americans: We used 0.8 percent less energy than in 2010. The EU was better with a 2 percent decrease, in a blatant attempt to make up for their paper practices.

The statuses of those two industries – paper and electricity – are completely divergent from what most people would assume in our modern age. Technology has made our world better in many important, critical ways. But environmentally, we’re still not making a dent. Technology apparently makes us use more paper, probably because everyone can now afford to have a “printing press” on his or her desk. And the trade-off we were prepared to make for our gadgets – more electricity – has actually incrementally decreased in the US and Europe while the rest of the developing world rushes to keep up.

There are many important technologies that are entering the mainstream to try and stem the tide of this planet’s environmental future. Electric cars are no longer a pipe dream. The impact of e-readers on paper consumption is yet to be measured. Common sense would say that if we were taking millions of books out of the equation, consumption would go down. Apparently, we shouldn’t hold our breath.

In my fantasies, my loyal readers all print my columns out and post them on their cubicle walls for weekly inspiration. That’s a wasteful illusion. Instead, my readers will simply take a screenshot of the column as use it as their background wallpaper for the week.

Real environmental change takes a fundamental shift in usage habits.