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Hug a Tree and Put a Hold on the Print Button


Since the dawn of the digital revolution, pundits have been heralding the birth of a paperless society. They have been predicting all newspapers and magazines would go online, e-mail communications would totally displace office memos and e-books would make their paper versions obsolete. The silver lining of this electronic cloud is that a paperless society would lower paper consumption and waste. If only this were true.

Although businesses have had some success reducing their use and waste of paper with electronic communication, our paper habits at work haven't changed.

Bethlehem Steel Corp. expanded its use of e-mail and implemented an Electronic Data Interchange System to replace hard-copy forms, conserving close to 30,000 pounds of paper in 1998. Computer manufacturer Silicon Graphics developed a Web-based purchasing system and conserved more than 2 1/2 tons of paper forms in one year. Despite these and other efforts in the business sector, as a whole, paper consumption is not down.

Mike Leahy, forest campaign coordinator for the National Audubon Society, believes the ability of electronic media to save trees hasn't yet been fully tapped. "Electronic communications have tremendous potential to reduce paper consumption in the future, but unfortunately there's been no noticeable change in our paper consumption and wood-product consumption to date. It continues to increase."

One reason could be that environmental gains from the use of technology are offset by the tendency to print things out.

"It's difficult to glean complex information off a computer screen," explains Amy Johns, senior associate editor of the techno-lifestyle magazine Wired. "I still see lots of printed out e-mails in our office. I think the computer and the printed word are fundamentally different mediums. People want different things from them. The computer is not a place most people do a lot of meditative thinking."

Even e-books haven't made a dent. "Right now it's a very niche market," she says. "Until screen technology improves, people will continue to read books."

Roger Fidler, professor of journalism and mass communications at Kent State University in Ohio, agrees. He authored an opinion piece titled "The Pulse of Tablet Technology" for the Online Journalism Review, and is the editor of an ongoing online symposium about the future of print media. "I don't expect to see all the world's printing presses shut down or to see the demise of paper next year, or any time in the next century for that matter," he says. "Paper has many redeeming qualities that will be difficult, if not impossible, for digital systems to entirely replace."

Booth Moore can be reached by e-mail at

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