Don't let the paperless society stay a pipe dream

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

Contrary to this, 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 played a significant role in mythologizing the paperless society.  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 percent.

We are living in an era of information overload where people are researching the internet constantly and printing out paper documentation.   In South Africa alone, online users have increased by over 183 percent from 2.4 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, or complying with legislation.

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, this means that the potential environmental benefits of a paperless society are not being felt.  The paper industry is among the world’s largest users of energy and emitters of greenhouse gases, as well as a significant source of water pollution and landfill waste.

Paper production also uses an enormous number of trees – 35 percent of the total trees cut around the world.

One of the most common, easiest and cost effective ways of combating the negative effects of the paper production processes is through recycling.

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.

The paperless society remains a distant realization of a fully-digital future.  For now it is important to consider the future of the planet and preserve the environment.

[Gianmarco Lorenzi is managing director of Cleardata, a group company of Metrofile Holdings Limited.  Workplace July 13 2011.]