A Complete Shift to a Paperless Society: Is It Possible?

Think back to the emails you might have received in the past month. How many of them had a message along the lines of “think before you print?” How many electronic devices and tools use “paperless” as their selling point? In both cases, your answer will likely be “many.”

For decades, environmental activists and enthusiasts have been promoting the paperless agenda. Futurists have predicted the rise of the paperless future — indeed, we might even say we’re living in such a society right now. 

On paper (pun unintended), the environmental benefits of going paperless are quite sound. It saves large-scale forests from being razed down for paper, reduces wastage and the need to recycle, and promotes a more organized and mindful life. However, are the proposed alternatives—digital tools and devices—any kinder on the planet? 

The paperless agenda is growing by leaps and bounds…

A considerable percentage of businesses have already converted most of their systems into digital-first ones, reducing the need for paper transactions. The benefits of this are manifold:

  • Compact and seamless transactions and communication no matter where you are in the world.
  • Minimized threats to security due to misplaced or unprotected information.
  • Secure databases and an irrefutable track record for key decisions.

Governments have also been making a similar sift, allowing citizens to carry out otherwise time-consuming processes from the comfort of their homes. They see the same benefits as businesses, and citizens can breathe a sigh of relief thanks to the added perks of not having to wait in line, send and resend forms, and track lost applications. 

So why aren’t we a paperless society already?

That’s a fair question. Unfortunately, it’s one that’s been brought about by how “going paperless” has been perceived and projected. When one consumes fewer reams of paper or celebrates one less forest being razed down for paper, it’s easy to assume that these make going digital the best alternative. However, we need to keep in mind that everything has a footprint — some we can see, but some we can’t.

The carbon footprint of the internet

The internet, everyone’s can’t-live-without technology, accounts for a whopping 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions. The shocker? That number is very close to the amount produced by the airline industry. According to energy company OVO, if every UK adult sent just one less “thank you” email, it could save 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year, which is equal to taking more than 3,300 diesel-chugging cars off the road. Reducing paper use saves forests, but using online and digital processes in their place is far from the most Earth-friendly option.

Business costs of going digital

A paperless society may not seem like such a big deal for people who use computers and have access to the latest upgrades. However, hardware and software can be cruelly expensive for new companies or individuals in developing parts of the world. Not everyone can afford to leap from paper to paperless in a heartbeat. There’s also the cost of running these systems, hiring people who can use them, and training those who can’t. With every new digital purchase, you’ll need an ecosystem of add-ons to reap its full benefits — and that amounts to a financial and environmental cost that is hard to imagine. 

Inhibited comprehension and the lack of a sensory experience

Science has it that printed material might just have a more significant impact on readers than if they were to read the same thing on a screen. Evidence suggests that e-readers and digital screens fail to create the tactile experience that is unique to paper. Compared to paper, screens may possibly drain more of our mental resources, one study reports, and might also inhibit our reading comprehension. The ability to form a mental map of the text on paper (where you can rearrange sheets as per your will) is said to make printed documents more navigable. It’s also a lot less distracting — there are no links to lead you into another rabbit hole, no advertisements or notifications that might take your attention away from the page. 

What are some other routes to take?

Going paperless might not seem like such a hot idea after the paragraphs before this but reducing paper usage and saving forests is still a worthy goal to have as a society. An all-or-nothing mindset might do more harm than good in this case, so it makes more sense to reduce paper usage as much as we can and find alternatives for the rest.

Reduce paper usage first

Since there’s no denying the positive impact that reducing paper has on the environment, it’s safe to say a paper-reduced society is far more realistic. No matter how much technology advances, we can still expect some uses for paper to hang around. Working to actively reduce the usage of paper where it’s completely unnecessary—like printing emails that don’t need to be printed—is still better for the environment, cost-reducing, and more convenient. 

Use sustainable, non-tree-based paper for the rest

Wood pulp from trees has been the traditional way of making paper for centuries. But with advancements in sustainable technology, new-age companies are creating paper out of sustainable alternatives such as sugarcane pulp, stone, agri-pulp, and even post-consumer waste. All of these help to prevent deforestation and can be used to replace it.

Reduce and offset digital carbon footprints in the interim

This is technically not an alternative, but it’s something we must actively start doing to alleviate the impact of the hours we spend on the internet. For businesses that run most of their affairs online, reducing their digital carbon footprint might look like this:

  • Setting internal limitations on every office device to minimize overconsumption.
  • Leveraging ​​IoT, machine learning, and automation systems to potentially reduce global carbon emissions by up to 15 percent.
  • Recycling or refurbishing old equipment to break the consumption cycle.
  • Estimating and reducing electricity and HVAC consumption across office facilities.
  • Vetting supplies through stringent quality control measures to reduce digital carbon footprints along the supply chain.

You can also offset your digital carbon footprint by planting trees through EcoMatcher. This works great for organizations with enormous digital systems—but it’s also a small step that individuals can make to create large-scale change. One-man design newsletter Dense Discovery, for example, plants one native Australian tree for every issue published to offset their carbon emissions.

The final word

Instead of trying to imagine a world where paper doesn’t exist, we can reframe our goals to erase the use of traditional tree-based paper to save trees and reduce deforestation. We must also continue our steps to minimize traditional paper usage while also contemplating the impact of our digital lives.

Being environmentally friendly is never black or white, but a million shades of grey. That means myriad different ways in which we can create positive change!