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Why a paperless society remains a myth

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Since the introduction of the personal computer in the early 1970s, many predicted that paper would soon become obsolete in day-to-day interactions as electronic devices became the chosen medium for all communications and transactions.

Contrary to this belief, businesses globally are actually generating more paper than ever before. In particular, companies operating in the financial, healthcare and manufacturing sectors – that have invested significantly in computer systems – are now producing over 4.5 trillion pages of hard copy annually.


Research released by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) reveals that total paper consumption is expected to rise from a current 400 million tons to between 450 million and 500 million tons by 2020 – a significant indication of why the paperless society (or paperless office) will continue to remain a myth.

The pulp and paper industry is also currently one of the largest industrial sectors in the world, and an important source of employment in many emerging economies.

Technology has also played a significant role in mythicising the paperless society, as, rather than diminishing the use of paper, technology has actually enhanced it as witnessed by the creation of e-mail, which alone has increased the global use of paper by 40%.

We are living in an era of information overload where people are researching the Internet constantly and printing out paper documentation to look at, show to others or preserve for their own personal records. In South Africa alone, online users have increased by over 183% from 2.4 million to 6.8 million users.

As personal computers evolve (think iPad), the editing of electronic documents is also being made simpler, allowing for documentation to be printed time and time again as updates or corrections are required. Paper consumption was actually far less in the days of the typewriter when typists carefully considered each letter, as one mistake meant retyping the entire document.

Much of the increase in paper usage can also be attributed to the fact that most business processes or interactions are still heavily driven by paper. Paper-based documents simply carry more authority as once something is committed to paper it is deemed final and it cannot be changed or modified as easily as an electronic document.

There is also the issue of required permanent record. Physical, paper-based copies of contracts, identification documents, proof of physical address etc. is often required when a person performs basic transactions such as opening an account at a bank or a retail store, registering with government agencies, such as the South African Revenue Service (SARS), or complying with legislation, such as the Regulation of Interception of Communications Act and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act (RICA). Every important transaction requires a copy of the original documentation as proof that a transaction occurred, further enhancing the power of the paper document.

Unfortunately, all of the above means that the potential environmental benefits of a paperless society are not being felt.  The pulp and paper industry is amongst the world’s largest users of energy and emitters of greenhouse gases, as well as a significant source of water pollution and landfill waste. In addition, paper production also uses an enormous amount of trees – nearly four billion trees or 35% of the total trees cut around the world are used in paper industries the world over. Fortunately, trees are a renewable resource as when one tree is cut down another one can be planted in its place.

One of the most common, easiest and cost effective ways of combating the negative effects of the paper production processes is through recycling. This is becoming an increasingly critical initiative to preserve the environment as not only does it save more trees from being cut down to produce more paper, but it also protects the natural environment from further pollution.

Unfortunately South Africa’s paper recycling ranking is still poor, significantly trailing behind countries such as Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Norway. In a drive to encourage recycling, the US paper industry has set a goal to recover 55% of all the paper used in the country by 2012.

More SA businesses need to follow this example by adopting a culture of paper recycling, which is sometimes as simple as placing paper recycling bins in high paper usage areas, such as near a printer or photocopy machine.

With the impending introduction of data protection legislation, such as the soon-to-be-implemented Protection of Personal Information Bill (POPI), it is crucial that local companies also use effective information destruction practices such as shredding, in conjunction with recycling practices, in order to comply with this legislation. This is still the most effective way for businesses to safeguard against document reconstitution.

With paper in varying forms still playing an integral role in our daily lives it seems the format is here to stay and the paperless society remains a distant realisation of a fully digital future. For now it is important to consider the future of the planet and do every bit to help preserve the environment.

By: Gianmarco Lorenzi, Cleardata MD – a group company of Metrofile Holdings Limited

1 COMMENT

  1. Dear Gianmarco,
    I enjoyed your article on Why a paperless society remains a myth
    I just have a few questions. Would the world be a cleaner more environmentally friendlier place without paper? What would we replace it with? Computers are high consumers of energy – in the use of and in the making of. Much of what they are made from are non-renewable materials.

    You wrote:
    “One of the most common, easiest and cost effective ways of combating the negative effects of the paper production processes is through recycling. This is becoming an increasingly critical initiative to preserve the environment as not only does it save more trees from being cut down to produce more paper, but it also protects the natural environment from further pollution.”

    Are you sure that recycling would protect the natural environment from further pollution? To de-ink and clean paper so it can be used again requires different chemicals than those used in the making. Do you know if they are more environmentally friendly?

    Best regards
    Floyd Cowan

Comments are closed.

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