The paper chase

Here’s an interesting fact. Last year my university used an estimated 2 million sheets of paper on which to print out electronic files or photocopy materials. Two million. That’s our contribution to what I believe is an annual consumption of paper across the world amounting to around 522 million tons. It is beyond me to try to work out what that means in terms of the world’s use or abuse of scarce natural resources, destruction of forests and pollution of the environment.

But it does make me wonder why we – and I mean all of us – still print so much stuff. I still find myself going to meetings at which everyone is reading print-outs of documents. Students are still being required to submit work in hard copy. All over our universities reports that nobody will read in any format are being presented on glossy paper.

I’m no better than anyone else. I still have and use a printer. But I have started to put most of my papers on my iPad and taken that to the meetings. And I’ll try to find other ways of avoiding this particular environmental craziness, including ways of minimising paper consumption in the university as a whole. Something for all of us to consider?

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18 Comments on “The paper chase”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Well, my printer is on the fritz, I think it doesn’t like the cheap ink I keep injecting into it. But I absolutely refuse to pay more than gold for a few drops of coloured vinegar.
    As to the whys of so much paper, on a long document it’s easier to read. By that I mean anything over five pages.
    Since you’re on this crusade, I’ll bet you that the cost of the paper is a fraction of what you pay for the ink.

  2. anna notaro Says:

    Our digital devices might still not be ideal to read long texts, as some argue, however there is a deeper explanation as to why we keep printing so much…we are still holding on very firmly to our ‘printing culture’ and to all that it entails, as this piece shows..

    • Vincent Says:

      Ah, I don’t know about that Anna. Overall I think there is a generational aspect to all this. A bit like me measuring things instinctively in feet and inches years after the change to metric. But for no other reason than that’s what was absorbed during that period when a kid conceptualizes measurement.
      If we hand to the current cohort of seven year olds a reader and ever afterward. Print would be out of fashion in twenty years except for a few greybeard’s and those writing PhD’s on the emotional reflections of fonts

  3. anna notaro Says:

    yes..I agree that there is a generational aspect, although young people’s attitudes towards the ‘print culture’ are often contradictory, every time I deliver my ‘is the Book dead?’ lecture students’ response is wholeheartedely for the book over any electronic reading device, only to confess that they seldom read books…we have already discussed in previous posts/comments how reading habits/cognitive patterns are changing, i.e. shorter, more fragmentary in relation to the Kindle or similar devices…at the moment the iPad is the very first example of a third generation of digital devices that makes e-reading easier, however its costs are beyond the range of most students’ pockets…New displays like the ChLCD (Cholesteric Liquid Crystal Displays) or others based on electrowetting technology are in the pipeline..the future of reading is in the tablets, how long it will take before our minds adapt to technological change is entirely another matter…

  4. Neal Says:

    It’s an interesting topic – I spoke to some pupils yesterday (aged 15). Some of them had a Kindle, iPad and iPod Touch in their houses. And yet all of them still read paper books – they “prefer them”. Is it the fact that a book is single-purpose whereas other readers have other built-in functions to distract?
    I personally think there is a terrible amount of waste when it comes to printing – “university reports” being a good example. Printing would be an acceptable resource use if it was used sensibly. In schools, there is lots of ‘worthwhile’ printing but also lots of other documents that could happily reside as emails to parents or on-screen documents.

  5. no-name Says:

    In order to promote being green you could have lots of literature printed off and have people stand at various entrances to the campus handing it out. You could also have the literature delivered in a Green Week van, the driver of which should leave the engine idling while unpacking said literature. (I actually saw this during Green Week at a Dublin university. The most shocking part (for me) was that none of the Green Week folks seemed to understand what I was talking about when I pointed out these inconsistencies).

    It’s good that you intend to cut down on paper waste at the university.

    The consumption of meat is another example of “environmental craziness.” Fostering vegetarianism at the university might also be a good move, don’t you think?

  6. jfryar Says:

    I think there are three main problems that need to be overcome. As Anna has already suggested, our screens are not yet up to the task.

    How many times have people downloaded a document, only to have to zoom in to read some parts, zoom out to get an overview of the whole page, etc? A piece of paper solves this constant messing about – you just move your head closer to the page! We need our screens to be at least A4 size and to have comparable resolution to ink. Windows displays fonts at 96 dots-per-inch whereas a fairly standard printer will achieve more than 10 times that. So better resolution and A4 sized displays are part of the solution.

    However, we expect our devices to do multiple tasks. On the one hand we’d like back-lit displays to show movies and photographs with good contrast, but displays lit by ambient light to read. I don’t think we’re going to combine both technologies any time soon (and also have a touchscreen on top) and have it cheap. It’ll be a few years yet.

    The second problem is psychological and something the device manufacturers are going to have to understand. We scan through text, our eyes hopping around the page. We look at the number of pages remaining and decide whether to stop reading or finish the chapter. We flick through to graphs and tables, and then read the text if we’re interested. So the device has to allow for that and do it quickly.

    The third problem is also psychological. Even though we could download all our DVDs and Blurays onto a giant server and stream them to our TVs whenever we wanted, people still buy DVDs and Blurays. This is because 3 billion years of evolution have adapted us to a physical world of things we can touch, lift, move, crumple, tear, throw, bin etc. Flicking through a book to find a page isn’t just faster than sliding your finger over a screen but is substantially more statisfying. Therefore I think we’ll always have a preference for something real than something digital, until such time as tactile displays are available (there are already moves to produce displays that, with small pulses of current, stimulate nerves in your fingertips to give you a ‘simulation’ of the physical sensation of pressing a button).

    Finally there’s security and ease of use. How many times have you heard someone say ‘I can’t log in, I seem to have deleted that file, I’ll have to retrieve it from the server, what’s my password again?, hard disk is fried, where’s the CD backup, can John see this or do I have to change the permissions’ etc. Some of this can be solved with decent IT future planning which, I’m sorry to say, isn’t exactly a feature of modern universities. Paper backups are quicker, easier and more secure – if I want to ‘delete’ a paper document I have to physically find it, and throw it in a bin.

  7. Al Says:

    I try to cut down on paper use, but there is a fine line between conservation of resources and lower quality of work or product…

  8. Em Says:

    I know what you mean, and you’re right, but I, for one, find it very difficult to read on screen. As for writing paper, I need to print them to revise them, I just can’t get anywhere when I do it on my pc. Waste of time and waste of paper, but it is just the only way it works for me.
    On the other hand, I try to transfer all my bills to online billing and will print them only if I need them as a proof. It is a lot more practical and saves a lot. I also use both sides of a sheet of paper. And keep unwanted letters and the likes as rough paper.
    I’m not sure it balances out, but it’s at least something.

  9. In my experience, students are far more enthusiastic about electronic submission than academics are about electronic grading and return, with the result that even where papers are submitted electronically, they are then printed out in order to be written on and handed back in hard copy. I’ve asked my colleagues why they do this, and they all cite sensible reasons, including that they prefer to be able to concentrate when grading, and this means being away from their computers and the regular drip drip drip of incoming email. Even if they don’t mind grading via a screen, they don’t necessarily want (or have the capacity) to do this while online. So for this to work, we really need better, easier to use virtual dropboxes.

    But it’s worth acknowledging perhaps that our students are raising genuine environmental concerns with us about these traditional paper-based practices, not just lobbying for their own convenience.

  10. Steve B Says:

    My University School requires electronic submission of coursework and projects through Turnitin and some lecturers’ grade work online.
    I have an issue as to whether this drive to more and more online learning is in any way evidence based, i.e. do we actually learn effectively from a computer screen. I for one much prefer to read from a paper copy and not a screen although I do mark MSc projects on a screen but that is really related to Turnitin cross referencing with source material.
    I print out as little as possible but that’s probably something to do with being a Scotsman and wanting to save money than the environment.
    At exam time the amount of paper and associated admin time to organise and collate papers is huge.
    I have always had an arise with sitting at an Exam Board with perhaps 15 people all of whom have around 100 student grading sheets to look through. That’s 1500 sheets of paper which all end up in the shredder. Madness. Why don’t they use the ceiling mounted projectors?
    I for one look forward to receiving my University supplied I Pad but I still wish to use paper when appropriate.

  11. anna notaro Says:

    This might be relevant, it’s an excerpt from ‘Reading in a whole new Way’ ‘ a piece by Kevin Kelly (editor of Wired magazine): ‘ Screen culture demands fluency in all kinds of symbols, not just letters. And it demands more than our eyes. The most physically active we may get while reading a book is to flip the pages or dog-ear a corner. But screens engage our bodies. Touch screens respond to the ceaseless caress of our fingers. Sensors in game consoles such as the Nintendo Wii track our hands and arms. We interact with what we see. Soon enough, screens will follow our eyes to perceive where we gaze. A screen will know what we are paying attention to and for how long. In the futuristic movie Minority Report (2002), the character played by Tom Cruise stands in front of a wraparound screen and hunts through vast archives of information with the gestures of a symphony conductor. Reading becomes almost athletic. Just as it seemed weird five centuries ago to see someone read silently, in the future it will seem weird to read without moving your body.

    Books were good at developing a contemplative mind. Screens encourage more utilitarian thinking. A new idea or unfamiliar fact will provoke a reflex to do something: to research the term, to query your screen “friends” for their opinions, to find alternative views, to create a bookmark, to interact with or tweet the thing rather than simply contemplate it. Book reading strengthened our analytical skills, encouraging us to pursue an observation all the way down to the footnote. Screen reading encourages rapid pattern-making, associating this idea with another, equipping us to deal with the thousands of new thoughts expressed every day. The screen rewards, and nurtures, thinking in real time. We review a movie while we watch it, we come up with an obscure fact in the middle of an argument, we read the owner’s manual of a gadget we spy in a store before we purchase it rather than after we get home and discover that it can’t do what we need it to do’

  12. I’m not sure that researching while reading (opening the second tab to query a term, for example) is different from glancing down at a footnote, or flicking forward to the cited works to check the date of a reference, or underlining a passage, or writing a comment in the margin of a student essay. I think perhaps each involves us in a mix of contemplation and instrumental busywork.

    In relation to learning, I notice that I remember reading blog content fairly well, because the layout is distinctive from blog to blog, whereas pages of academic writing or student essays have a similar appearance.

    But I do think the “athletics of reading” that Wii and other devices anticipate will be a really interesting counterpoint to the aesthetics of content. Thanks so much for this link.

    • anna notaro Says:

      ‘I’m not sure that researching while reading (opening the second tab to query a term, for example) is different from glancing down at a footnote, or flicking forward to the cited works to check the date of a reference, or underlining a passage, or writing a comment in the margin of a student essay. I think perhaps each involves us in a mix of contemplation and instrumental busywork.’. I agree with you on this aspect, in fact Kelly represents the most optimistic and somewhat acritical prespective re e-reading devices etc. At the opposite side of the spectrum you find Richard Stallman, ex hacker and founder of the Free Software Foundation who has recently warned against what he calls the ‘danger of e-books’ which far from empower us, chain us, his short piece on the topic is to be found at

  13. upmg Says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with keeping in check unnecessary wholesale photocopying but also want to add the following considerations to the discussion:

    ‘As more and more work becomes screen-based, those items of print which continue to be produced, will maybe take on greater presence and value’.
    Adam Brown

    Paper is simple, immediate, portable, flexible, functional and doesn’t need batteries.
    Phil Evans

    It’s obvious why paper still excites us – it’s real-world, 3D, touchable, holdable, sniffable-and so are we.
    Noel Lyons

    Paper is incredibly important and will continue to be so because of its versatility as a material and the ease at which it can be recycled, even as our communication landscape becomes more reliant on digital technology.
    Tom Phillips

    Paper is taken for granted. If it was rare and therefore a valued commodity it would encourage more discerning, thoughtful and intelligent use of a precious commodity
    Alan Kitching
    The typography workshop

    The connection between typography and paper is ancient. paper is a means to store thought in any shape or form.
    Bruno Maag
    Dalton Maag

  14. Dan Says:

    I suppose I could RTFM, but I like the idea of using an iPad for meeting agendae, minutes, policy documents, bumps…Can anybody advise how I load up word files, (not only pdfs) onto an iPad?

    I usually bring a laptop to meetings and download such documents from my university email. If I print out such stuff, I usually chuck it all, torn up, straight into my office bin afterwards, feeling a bit guilty about it. It seems extraordinary to use printed out documents, when they are only needed for a couple of hours…

  15. RGU employee Says:

    I go to a variety of meetings where I am asked to print out a full copy of papers as spare in case the attendees have not done so before. There is now a small number who attend with their IPADs/laptops and some which still require paper documents. Most of the papers are never fully read and just thrown away after the meeting. As iPADs are expensive just to use as a reading your papers/emails device, maybe someone should complete a on options appraisal and cost/benefit analysis of alternative devices such as a “kindle” similar device

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