A Paperless Future?

Back when the first PC was plunked down on the first desk, the futurists began talking about the “paperless office.” That dream has not been fulfilled, but rising costs are forcing a dramatic reassessment of paper use—made possible by the awesome capabilities of the modern computer.

The paperless office may actually be within reach. At one of the largest computer manufacturers, Houston, Texas-based Compaq, a “paperless procurement system” means that an eight-page paper form has been replaced with an electronic transmission. “Our whole sales organization communicates electronically through our bulletin board system,” says Walt Rosenberg, Compaq’s corporate environmental manager. “And I don’t remember the last time I saw a hand-written memo.” Compaq’s internal newsletter, once a four-color printing job on recycled paper, is now online.

Business forms—everything from mailing labels to invoices and purchase orders—make up a huge percentage of office paper use. And, according to Margie Garner, sales manager of Kansas City-based Amgraf Incorporated, the paperless electronic form “is a pretty hot thing right now. When our trade association meets, electronic forms are almost the entire topic. The escalating cost of paper is a big incentive and selling point for the growing electronic forms business.”

Garner says electronic forms can be reproduced in multiple copies (which usually require messy carbons or chemically-impregnated “NCR” paper) sent via the Internet or a company’s internal network with strong security precautions, viewed on the screen and sent back “without it ever being printed out.”

Dominic Pandolph, a Pennsylvania-based business forms vendor, says he still sells paper forms, but almost half of his orders now are for the electronic versions. Marge Green, vice president of the Document Management Industries Association, in Alexandria, Virginia (which, in a sign of the times, just changed its name from the National Business Forms Association), says electronic forms are “definitely a trend, although the growth of that market hasn’t been as quick as some people had anticipated.” According to Green, companies’ internal forms—memos, orders and requisitions—have adopted easily to delivery through internal e-mail systems, but the more complicated external forms are taking longer to make the switch, and may never do so completely.

How broad is the paperless trend? According to Sandra Cannon, who created the Green Guide to Trimming Office Waste Website as part of her job at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, “We’re definitely making progress nationally, but it’s very hard to quantify.” Cannon is still waiting for a clear picture to emerge. “There’s the whole gamut out there,” she says, “from offices that use very little paper to those that don’t even have computers. And it varies within offices, too. I never use my printer, but some of my colleagues print out every `cc’ message. To find out why that is you’d need to do psychological profiling.”

Computers definitely do have an environmental dark side. According to Hassane Bendahmamne, a senior program officer with the United Nations Environment Programme, cleaning agents for computer equipment often include chlorofluorocarbons, which are extremely harmful to the stratospheric ozone layer.

There’s also the problem of waste. “All the XT computers of the early 80s are being discarded massively,” Bendahmamne says. “Some of them are being donated to educational institutions in the developing countries, but there will come a time when that old technology will not even be good enough for donating.”

Mark Jaeger, the environmental coordinator for a large midwestern metal finishing company, says that time is already here. In the past year, he says he’s thrown out 39 outdated computers, monitors, printers, keyboards, modems, assorted cords and connections, disks and books. Jaeger did, however, donate some computers that were still usable to local non-profit organizations and schools, prolonging their life and keeping them out of the landfill. Return to The Virtual Environment…