Though the idea of a paperless office germinated in the 1960s with the arrival of the first computer terminals, the idea really took hold in the mid-1970s. An article published in Business Week in 1975 stated that the automation of office tasks would bring the end of paper for bookkeeping and record keeping. The idea gained traction as personal computers appeared on the desks of just about everyone between approximately 1980 and 2000.
While most people like the idea of a paperless office in theory, matching up the idea with reality has proven challenging.
Actual Trends in Paper Usage
In reality, the demand for paper is as high as it has ever been. In fact, a Finnish paper company called Foex predicts that 2012 could see the consumption of 400 million tons of paper — an all time record. As computer technology has advanced, so has print technology. Today’s printers and copiers make it far easier to reproduce documents and to do so in bulk quantities. In the last two decades of the 20th century, worldwide office paper use more than doubled. As electronic communication has become more popular, so has the printing out of those electronic communications.
Why We Still Use Paper
The fact is, good old paper has a lot going for it. Paper is a flexible, lightweight medium. Paper documents can be in grayscale or color and can be in any typeface. Paper can be used by numerous devices, both high tech and low tech, including faxes, scanners, copiers, printers, pens, and pencils. It has high contrast, which makes it easy to read. And here in the 21st century, some records — like deeds, legally binding contracts, and records for the IRS — need to exist in paper form for legal or financial purposes. Finally, paper takes more time to destroy. Consider how long it would take to burn thousands of documents; then consider that you could wipe out that many documents simply by stepping on a Flash drive.
Costs of Going Paperless
Going paperless can be very expensive. To reduce the number of boxes of paper documents at the national archives in the UK by 20% would cost approximately £259 million (roughly $400 million), according to head of licensing Caroline Kimbell. Businesses that want to go paperless must consider the costs of procuring equipment and software, as well as the costs of converting paper records into electronic documents. Businesses must also determine which document conversions take priority, how much existing paper to convert into electronic form, and how to deal with paper that continues to come in from customers and vendors. Furthermore, employees must be trained to use new systems while the business continues to operate during the changeover from paper documents to electronic ones.
Realistic Goals for Reducing Paper Use
Ultimately, moving toward a paperless office can save time, money, and natural resources. But nobody really expects any business to be entirely free from paper. It is reasonable, however, to reduce the volume of paper in a business by doing the following:
- Get rid of redundant forms. Realize that not everybody needs a paper copy of every update of draft documents.
- Use a high-quality printer or copier. This allows you to do two-sided printing. Plus, it cuts down on the amount of paper thrown out for being smudged or illegible.
- Recycle. Did you know that one ton of recycled paper can save around 17 trees?
The benefits of cutting down on paper waste and paper usage can free up floor space for office furniture, since a four-drawer file cabinet can take up nine square feet of space. Shifting documents to electronic form also helps to organize and secure intellectual property, while making it easy to find and search. For the foreseeable future, going completely paperless is almost impossible, but you can do your part to cut waste. That will benefit everybody.
Photo Credit: Kate Ter Haar