Week of 10/10/04

Dear EarthTalk: What are some ways to save paper at the office?

—Wee Kheong, Singapore

Paper usage is at an all-time high around the world, and the average office worker prints and copies through some 10,000 pages every year. Hopes that the advent of electronic communications would drastically cut paper consumption have not panned out thus far, but individuals can still do their part by replacing printed communications with electronic ones whenever possible.

Many companies use e-mail extensively now, for both interoffice exchanges as well as communication with customers. Attaching files to e-mails instead of printing out reports can eliminate reams of paper on a daily basis, as can posting information on company websites or intranets, private networks that use the same kinds of software as the public Internet, but for internal use.

Beyond eliminating paper, offices have many options for reducing paper consumption. One very obvious strategy is to use both sides of every sheet, an approach that, if used religiously, can cut routine paper usage almost in half. Most office equipment can be set to default to double-sided printing. Also, workers should make use of the "print preview" function—which comes standard in most word processing and spreadsheet software—to prevent having to reprint pages due to errors discovered after the fact.

Sharing is another way to save paper. Notices or announcements can be posted in a few highly trafficked common areas instead of delivered to individual desks. Likewise, a single copy of a report can be circulated for editing to multiple employees. Meanwhile, more paper can be saved by printing only relevant pages instead of entire reports.

Copiers and printers that are in tune and running efficiently also help save paper. When copiers are not serviced regularly, they run out of toner and jam more often, causing more paper to be wasted. Printers suffer similar problems if ink cartridges wear out or paper trays are filled the wrong way.

Companies can help their employees save paper by instituting a formalized paper reduction campaign, including mandatory double-sided printing and copying, the scheduling of periodic equipment maintenance, and the reduction of paper-based forms. Outdated letterhead can be used as scratch paper or for internal memos. And office managers can make sure clearly marked paper recycling bins are available, and can post "think before you print" and "think before you copy" signs in visible areas of the workplace.

For more tips on reducing paper use at the office, check out the websites listed below

CONTACTS: Office Paper Reduction Quick Tips, California Integrated Waste Management Board, http://www.ciwmb.ca.gov/BizWaste/OfficePaper/QuickTip.htm; Cutting Paper, U.S. Department of Energy Waste Minimization Program, http://eetd.lbl.gov/Paper/; INFORM’s Waste Reduction Tips for the Office, http://www.informinc.org/fact_office.php.

Dear EarthTalk: In light of concerns about mercury-tainted fish that have been in the news lately, which fish are safer to eat than others?

—Renee Scott, via e-mail

As mercury pollution from industrial facilities becomes more pervasive in both ocean and freshwater environments, consumers need to limit their intake of both freshwater fish and seafood, whether they catch it themselves or buy it in a supermarket or restaurant.

More than 3,000 water bodies nationwide were under fish consumption advisories in 2003, an increase of almost 10 percent over the previous year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Aquatic predators toward the top of the food chain—such as swordfish, shark, king mackerel, tilefish, pike, walleye, largemouth bass, white sucker, yellow perch and albacore tuna—are most likely to carry large amounts of mercury. Environmentalists recommend avoiding eating such fish altogether.

Meanwhile, shrimp, salmon, pollock, catfish, and canned light tuna do not accumulate as much mercury in their systems, and as a result may be safer to eat in moderation. Nevertheless, the EPA recommends that consumers limit their intake to 12 ounces (2 average meals) per week of any fish.

Each year, U.S. power plants and other industrial facilities spew as much as 150 tons of mercury or more into the air as a by-product of production processes. Eventually the mercury makes its way into nearby waterways and accumulates in the tissue of fish.

Exposure to mercury can be particularly hazardous for pregnant women and small children, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. During the first several years of life, a child’s brain is still developing and rapidly absorbing nutrients. Prenatal and infant mercury exposure can cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness and blindness. Even in low doses, mercury may affect a child’s development, delay walking and talking, shorten attention span and cause learning disabilities.

In adults, mercury poisoning can adversely affect fertility and blood pressure regulation and can cause memory loss, tremors, vision loss and numbness of the fingers and toes. A growing body of evidence suggests that exposure to mercury may also lead to heart disease.

A January 2003 report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that one in six women of childbearing age have mercury in their blood above the level that would pose a risk to a developing fetus. The good news for consumers who have eaten large amounts of fish in the past is that they can significantly lower the mercury content in their bloodstreams by cutting consumption now.

CONTACTS: Environmental Protection Agency Fish Advisories Page, http://www.epa.gov/waterscience/fish/; Natural Resources Defense Council’s Mercury Contamination in Fish: A Guide to Staying Healthy and Fighting Back, http://www.nrdc.org/health/effects/mercury/index.asp.