A Paperless Society?

A school my wife and I attend recently gave us the option to save paper by choosing to receive an e-mailed copy of its newsletter instead of a mailed paper copy. My wife wanted the e-mail version. I didn't. She liked the convenience of only seeing the pages with the class schedules. I liked the convenience of a hard copy so that we didn't have to go online every time we had schedule questions. So we compromised. Instead of receiving two mailed copies, we had one e-mailed and one snail-mailed. Another small victory for the paperless society.

Paper is an important raw material for garbagemen and recyclers. It supplies more landfill tonnage than any other material, and it also is our most easily and commonly recycled material. A paperless society has major implications for both sides of the solid waste equation.

I remember the first wave of predictions in the late '70s about the paperless office. Experts declared that the new office computers made paper irrelevant. Today, most of us laugh when we remember those predictions.

But I wonder. Were the experts wrong, or just too early? Those first computers didn't have the memory to replace paper, making the first attempts to create paperless offices doomed. But has the rise of the Internet changed the rules of the game? Is a paperless society only a generation away?

The paper industry doesn't think so. Paper production remains healthy for most products. Of course, some are not as strong as they used to be. When was the last time you saw a computer tab card? Do you even know what a tab card is? My teenage son has no idea what “do not fold, spindle or mutilate” means. And newspapers are becoming slimmer as television and other media siphon off advertising dollars.

Other paper products can thrive because of the 'Net. Paper companies will use more paper to make smaller boxes for shipping products sold on the Web than for shipping cases of the same product to a brick and mortar store.

The 'Net is irrelevant to some paper products. Tissues and towels can't be replaced by bytes, although the Japanese have invented a paperless toilet.

Right now, we aren't using less paper as much as we are shifting who pays for it. I have an online subscription to The Wall Street Journal. I can read the paper more quickly and efficiently on the web than with the paper version. But I still print out articles that I need to save and think about.

Undoubtedly, my generation will have trouble using less paper. We are used to reading books, magazines and newspapers on sheets of paper and not on a computer screen. Our children, however, are more adaptable. My son is used to reading mail, newspapers and magazine articles online, and he uses the Web to research school projects. Does anyone even buy paper encyclopedias anymore?

Will we have a paperless society? I doubt it. But a less-paper society is inevitable. Scientists are hard at work inventing substitutes for most paper products, including “pages” for books and newspapers that don't remotely resemble the paper we know so well. And if you think paper is irreplaceable, remember what happened to the glass bottle and the buggy whip.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: cmiller@envasns.org.

The columnist is director, state programs for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.