Opinion: Saving paper

POSTED: 09/22/11 2:25 PM

When the personal computer emerged in the early eighties of last century it did not take long for utopian articles to appear about the paperless office. Stories about free computers followed close on their heels.
But thirty odd years later, the free computer is still an illusion. And the paperless office? Forget it; that is not going to happen at least not in the foreseeable future. Our government is therefore far ahead of its time with the following statement we read in the governing program A Foundation of Hope for Our Country: “Reduction by approximately 50 percent of paperwork is an attainable goal.”
We are not shy to call this statement ambitious, bordering on unrealistic. Mind you, we would love to see St. Maarten achieve this lofty goal – we just don’t see it happen. Call us pessimists or professional grumblers, but facts from the paper industry believe the notion that more technology leads to less paper.
St. Maarten puts the reduction of paper in the context of a belated technological revolution. “Government lags behind in the use of technology as a service enhancer/. Attention will be paid to this deficiency, not only in terms of investments in technology, but also through investments in the training of personnel in order to make optimal use of the opportunity offered through the use of technology.”
We note that a simple rewrote of the previous sentence could also lead to a significant reduction in the use of space on a computer screen, but that’s beside the point.
A fifty percent reduction in paperwork – that’s what our government envisions, and we admire them for this bold statement.
However …..
In The Myth of the Paperless Office, Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H. R. Harper note that the use of email alone causes an increase of 40 percent in paper consumption in organizations.
We routinely print emails, web pages and articles found on the Internet. We seemingly are unable to help it. Though computer screens are of a high quality these days and there is no earthly reason to print what we read in electronic form, it still happens on a massive scale. Environmental concerns have focused the attention of organizations on the silent waste that flows through their printers, but that does not mean that the tide is turning. Not yet.
The government’s ambition to cut down on the use of paper is of course more than welcome. The question is: how is the coalition going to achieve this? By placing a policeman behind every printer in the government organization? We don’t think so.
Ralph Reid, the vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility wrote earlier this year in a column on the web site of Environmental Leader that American office workers routinely use 10,000 pages of copy paper each year, thereby contributing heavily to the annual consumption of 85 million tons of paper and in the US. And according to ForestEthics, a member of the environmental Paper Network, paper use in offices grows by an astonishing 20 percent each year.
Against this background, St. Maarten’s “attainable goal” of a 50 percent reduction seems almost like science fiction.
But hey, we have to start somewhere and without ambition we’re certainly not getting anywhere. Reid says that e-billing and redesigning forms so that they require less paper are simple steps to reduce paper use. Encouraging document scanning versus printing or copying is another method. But first and foremost large organizations have to define who their largest paper-consumers are, because that is usually where the largest savings can be made.
Organizations could also look at the type of paper they use and go for recycled paper. In St. Maarten it must be possible to set up a paper recycling system that gives a small company the resources to produce recycled paper locally. The government ought to be its largest customer – a decision that will come at no cost and with additional benefits in the form of local employment opportunities.
All in all: an ambitious remark in the governing program that deserves a solid follow-up.

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