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Paperless office

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A paperless office (or paper-free office) is a work environment in which the use of paper is eliminated or greatly reduced. This is done by converting documents and other papers into digital form, a process known as digitization. Proponents claim that "going paperless" can save money, boost productivity, save space, make documentation and information sharing easier, keep personal information more secure, and help the environment. The concept can be extended to communications outside the office as well.


The IBM 2260

The paperless world was a publicist's slogan, intended to describe the office of the future. It was facilitated by the popularization of video display computer terminals like the 1964 IBM 2260. An early prediction of the paperless office was made in a 1975 Business Week article.[1] The idea was that office automation would make paper redundant for routine tasks such as record-keeping and bookkeeping, and it came to prominence with the introduction of the personal computer. While the prediction of a PC on every desk was remarkably prophetic, the "paperless office" was not. Improvements in printers and photocopiers made it much easier to reproduce documents in bulk, causing the worldwide use of office paper to more than double from 1980 to 2000.[2] This was attributed to the increased ease of document production[2] and widespread use of electronic communication, which resulted in users receiving large numbers of documents that were often printed out.

Since about 2000, at least in the US, the use of office paper has leveled off and is now decreasing, which has been attributed to a generation shift.[2] According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the average office worker generates approximately two pounds of paper and paperboard products each day.[3]

The term "The Paperless Office" was first used in commerce by Micronet, Inc., an automated office equipment company, in 1978.[4]

Some argue that paper will always have a place because it affords different uses than screens.[5]

Environmental impact of paper[edit]

According to the 2018 American Forest & Paper Association Sustainability Report, paper manufacturing decreased greenhouse gas emission by 20% in an eleven-year period.[6][7] Measures such as recycling can help reduce the environmental impact of paper. Some paper production outside of North America may lead to air pollution with the release of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2),[8] and carbon dioxide (CO2). Waste water discharged from pulp and paper mills outside of North America may contain solids, nutrients, and dissolved organic matter that are classified as pollutants. Nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus can cause or exacerbate eutrophication of fresh water bodies.[citation needed]

Printing inks and toners are very expensive and use environment-damaging volatile organic compounds, heavy metals and non-renewable oils, although standards for the amount of heavy metals in ink have been set by some regulatory bodies.[9][which?] Deinking recycled paper pulp results in a waste slurry, sometimes weighing 22% of the weight of the recycled wastepaper, which may go to landfills.[10]

Environmental impact of electronics[edit]

A paperless work environment requires an infrastructure of electronic components to enable the production, transmission, and storage of information.[11] The industry that produces these components is one of the least sustainable and most environmentally damaging sectors in the world.[12] The process of manufacturing electronic hardware involves the extraction of precious metals and the production of plastic on an industrial scale.[13] The transmission and storage of digital data is facilitated by data centers, which consume significant amounts of the electricity supply of a host country.[14]

Eliminating paper via automation and electronic forms automation[edit]

The need for paper is eliminated by using online systems, such as replacing index cards and rolodexes with databases, typed letters and faxes with email, and reference books with the internet.[15] The E-Sign Act of 2000 in the United States provided that a document cannot be rejected on the basis of an electronic signature and required all companies to accept digital signatures on documents. Many document management systems include the ability to read documents via optical character recognition and use that data within the document management system's framework. While this technology is essential to achieving a paperless office[15] it does not address the processes that generate paper in the first place.

Securing and tracing documents[edit]

As awareness of identity theft and data breaches became more widespread, new laws and regulations were enacted, requiring companies that manage or store personally identifiable information to take proper care of those documents. Paperless office systems are easier to secure than traditional filing cabinets,[16] and can track individual accesses to each document.

Difficulties in adopting the paperless office[edit]

A major difficulty in "going paperless" is that much of a business's communication is with other businesses and individuals, as opposed to just being internal. Electronic communication requires both the sender and the recipient to have easy access to appropriate software and hardware. Costs and temporary productivity losses when converting to a paperless office are also a factor, as are government regulations, industry standards, legal requirements, and business policies which may also slow down the change. Businesses may encounter technological difficulties such as file format compatibility, longevity of digital documents, system stability, and employees and clients not having appropriate technological skills.[citation needed]

For these reasons, while there may be a reduction of paper, some uses of paper will likely remain indefinitely.[17] However, a 2015 questionnaire[18] suggested that nearly half of small/medium-sized businesses believed they were or could go paperless by the end of that year.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Office of the Future", Business Week (2387): 48–70, 30 June 1975
  2. ^ a b c "Technological comebacks: Not dead, just resting", The Economist, 9 October 2008
  3. ^ "Wastes – Resource Conservation – Common Wastes & Materials – Paper Recycling". US Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved 26 January 2013.
  4. ^ The Paperless Office Trademark Registration, United States Patent and Trademark Office, retrieved 13 December 2015
  5. ^ Sellen, A. J., & Harper, R. H. R. (2003). The myth of the paperless office. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press
  6. ^ "American Forest & Paper Association 2018 Sustainability Report" (PDF). American Forest & Paper Association.
  7. ^ "American Forest & Paper Association Sustainability Report". American Forest & Paper Association. 2018. Retrieved 1 May 2020.
  8. ^ "Air Pollutants of Concern". New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. Retrieved 26 January 2013.
  9. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 8 May 2007. Retrieved 27 May 2013.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)[full citation needed]
  10. ^ "Recycling Paper and Glass". US Department of Energy. September 2006. Retrieved 30 October 2007.
  11. ^ "The digital economy's environmental footprint is threatening the planet". The Conversation. 8 December 2019.
  12. ^ "Digital Technologies Are Part of the Climate Change Problem". ICTworks. 20 February 2020.
  13. ^ "Smartphones Are Killing The Planet Faster Than Anyone Expected". Fast Company. 27 March 2018.
  14. ^ "Why Ireland's data centre boom is complicating climate efforts". Irish Times. 6 January 2020.
  15. ^ a b Walker, Richard (7 August 2009), "Achieving The Paperless Office" (PDF), Efficient Technology Inc, archived from the original (PDF) on 23 December 2018, retrieved 4 September 2009
  16. ^ Hashmi, Ruheena. "E-Office: An Eco-friendly Advent of Cloud Computing Technology". Retrieved 16 August 2016.
  17. ^ Sellen, A. J., & Harper, R. H. R. (2003). The myth of the paperless office. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
  18. ^ "Nearly Half of Businesses are or could go Paperless in 2015". margolis.co.uk. Retrieved 13 July 2015.

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