How are you reading this column? Are you reading it on a screen or did you print it out so that you could savor it in a more leisurely fashion? Reading and the printed page have evolved tremendously over the last 10 years. In 2002, newsprint production peaked. The U.S. Post Office was merrily moving along, delivering ever-increasing amounts of paper mail. Magazine circulation was thriving. The e-book was nothing more than a dream.
Today, newspaper circulation has plummeted, the Post Office delivers less mail each year and magazines go out of business or are replaced by online editions. Printed paper production is down by almost 19 million tons since 2002. For years my columns in Recycling Times and then Waste Age and now Waste 360 were only available in print editions. Now they are only available online. If you want a hard copy of this column, you have to supply the paper.
I have long thought we were moving to a less paper society. Technology changes and so do the materials we use. Yet our use of printed paper continued to increase in the late 90’s in spite of my confident predictions that it was going the way of vellum. And then when use of printed paper started to decline, that decline was more rapid than expected—propelled by the loss of classified ads and other advertising and by continued improvements in electronic media.
Recycling has taken a hit. MRFs were designed to process paper as their primary feedstock. Now, the proportion of paper in a MRF is down dramatically while both glass and plastic have increased their share of a MRF’s feedstock. As a result, MRFs are processing material that is both heavier (glass) and lighter (plastic) than they were designed to manage. Worse, tonnages and revenues are down.
At the same time, paper is showing life in the most unlikely places. College students, for instance, prefer printed books to e-books. In spite of the high price of their paper texts, they like the ease of making notes in the text and then finding those notes or facts they need to revisit. For all the advantages of e-books, they are lousy at those functions.
In addition, while the evidence is inconclusive, experiments seem to show that we comprehend and remember better what we read in print than on screens. To add insult to injury, the artificial light of electronic screens sends the wrong signals to our brains, making it harder to sleep after that last glance at our smart phones.
I like paper. I like printed books and newspapers. I like the way they feel, their portability and their ability to engage me without relying on a battery for power. But I am no Luddite. I also like e-books. As I have grown older and my eyesight has become a little less sharp than it used to be, I appreciate the ability to change the type size and select an easier-to-read font on an e-book. Electronic media also allows me to download new studies and only print out the pages I really need to ponder. As a result, I find room for both print and electronic media in my library.
Centuries ago, when paper began to replace vellum, did the scholars of the day bemoan the loss of beauty and the feel of sheepskin or did they embrace the new technology? I suppose that many did. But it doesn’t matter. Paper triumphed. I don’t believe it will go the way of vellum, but, to my regret, it will continue to diminish.
Chaz Miller is state programs director for the National Waste & Recycling Association.