The Forgotten Promise

26 November 2009
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The truth about using paper

Do you know paper uses 2 of our most precious resources? It takes 6% of a tree and 5,000 litres of water to produce 1 ream of paper?  And do you know a mature tree can absorb 21kg of carbon dioxide per year? Do you know 5,000 litres of water is equivalent to 21,000 glasses of water which can last a person for 7 years? And today, 42% of the world’s industrial wood harvest goes to paper. And trees are our valuable resources in absorbing carbon emissions.

At the beginning of the IT revolution, creating a paperless office was touted as one of the key benefits of IT adoption. However this did not happened and it was forgotten.  According to a 2001 study by OECD, pulp and paper production has increased 300% over the last 30 years and the usage is expected to increase at an average growth rate of 2.8% each year. It is estimated that we will use over 420 million tons of paper in 2010.

Little known facts about recycled paper

People are getting more environmentally conscious and paper recycling has increased these few years. However there are a few known facts about paper recycling.

  • Not all the paper end up being recycled
  • Contaminated paper cannot be used for recycling
  • The fibers in the paper can only be recycled up to 4-6 times
  • Recycled paper still need water and energy to produce
  • The waste from the paper recycling process (e.g. inks, usable fibers, etc) are either burnt or buried underground

Other benefits of going paperless

Apart from being more green, there are also other benefits of going paperless:

  • Save storage space – one 100Gb hard disk can store 900 metres of books on a shelf
  • Save time – on filing and organizing the papers
  • Reduce business cost– on buying paper, ink and others
  • Easier to search – searching for a piece of information electronically is much faster
  • Easier to duplicate – how much time does it takes to photocopy a report
  • Easier to transport – it is a chore to carry an encyclopedia to work everyday
  • Easier to distribute – how much time is spent distributing documents around the office

Other initiatives of reducing paper usage

A lot of organizations are aware of these benefits of going paperless and are taking proactive actions in doing that. Here are some examples:

  • Singapore government replacing physical forms with e-services for citizens
  • Newspapers providing electronic subscriptions for news
  • Companies providing the alternative of sending bills electronically
  • Companies like HSBC and Citibank sending electronic newspapers in place of physical newsletters
  • Google is working with libraries to digitize the books to make it more accessible
  • Amazon and Sony are coming up with innovative ebook readers like Kindle and Reader

The time is right

While it is not possible to eliminate the use of paper in office, reduction of paper usage is possible today with several developments in technology.

  1. Popularity of laptops over desktopLaptop sales have overtaken desktop sales with prices of laptop going below $1,000. More and more office workers are using laptops.
  2. Laptop going smaller and lighter – It is much easier to carry them around.
  3. Availability of wireless networks in office – There is no need for messy network cables in meeting rooms.
  4. Availability of information repositories – Enterprise wikis and shared file servers allows the most updated documents to be circulated and access in real time.
  5. Information linking with web applications – Related information can be accessed through a link rather than flipping through the pages to find the required information.
  6. Broadband infrastructure available A lot of people have broadband subscription at home. Some of them even have mobile broadband subscription. This enables them to access to the internet or office network (via VPN) and access to information easily at their fingertips.
  7. The convergence of devices – Besides PCs and laptops, information is also accessible through mobile devices like iPhones and Sony PSPs.

How can we do it?

It is possible that offices can reduce the usage of paper. All it takes is just a little change in the way we work.

The first way is to think twice before you send a document to the printer. Ask yourself how long the printout will be useful to you before it lands into the bin. Are you going to refer to it after tomorrow and are you going to print another updated version soon?

The second way is to move away from the concept of documents, as documents are designed for printing and implicitly encourage people to print it. In order to move away from this age-old tradition, we need to have an alternative where the electronic form is more useful than the printed form.

A good alternative will be wikis that is made well-known by Wikipedia. The features of wikis are so useful such that they have been enhanced with features for business use.  Enterprise wikis provide more value when the content is read on the screen than the paper:

  1. Useful and related information can be linked together or accessed easily
  2. Relevant discussions can be tied together to the content, making it easier for sharing information
  3. Information can be searched easily and fast
  4. Rich media like videos and interactive widgets can be embedded
  5. Change history are recorded
  6. Provide the most up-to-date information by ensuring a single source of information
  7. Allows identification of authors and subject matter experts
  8. Timestamp provides clue whether information has expired
  9. Ability to enforce viewing/editing permissions
  10. And it is still possible to print out or generate PDF version of the information

Reducing paper usage with IT is a possibility

With the technological developments, it is now a possibility for IT and businesses to renew on its promise to reduce paper usage. All it takes is just a more environmental conscious mind for management and workers to tap on these green technologies.

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