Is there an environmental benefit to scanning our documents?

We’ve used paper for thousands of years, we’re not going to give up now; right? Well at least we’re not going to totally give up … it’s in our DNA. Some of the most important moments of our lives are recorded on paper. Our birth, marriage and death certificate are all in paper form. Important transactions such as signing the deeds to our new property or voting in a general election all tend to be legacy paper based processes. We still send 58M letters in the UK every day and most of us still receive paper based invoices and pay slips, and how many of us really sign up for electronic statements from our banks.

Most businesses big and small still use paper for some of their most crucial business processes, many still file and store (or sub contract the storage) documents in large quantities often much longer than is absolutely necessary. Aside from the operational efficiencies derived from “scan to process” and the obvious cost savings to be gained from reducing the “Paper Mountains” is there really a positive environmental impact to be gained from scanning paper?

Well clearly had we not of created the documents in the first place there would be no need to scan them, but as mentioned that’s not going to change overnight. Maybe the truly digital native generation can make a dent in our massive paper consumption.

The environmental benefits are there, it’s all about “breaking the cycle” or “truncating the paper process”, in simple terms it’s more of a philosophical argument. The earlier in the process we can capture paper (scan it) the less likely it is to be copied aimlessly for distribution. The best way to get over our dependency on paper is to eliminate it as quickly as possible, we need to change the way we work. Creating a new business philosophy is no easy task. Making it unacceptable to use a printer is not realistic for most businesses, but by providing employees with small desktop scanners and encouraging them to scan rather than print is laying the foundations for reducing your environmental footprint. By reducing the amount we print we are positively affecting the environment as follows:

  1. We use less (expensive) ink and toner, aside from the noxious chemicals in these products the actual cartridge is nearly always made from plastic. A significant amount of oil is used to produce these cartridges and even though a lot can now be recycled still every year hundreds of millions of cartridges go to landfill.
  2. We can hugely reduce the amount of paper we use. How often do we print documents only to throw them away the same day? Believe me it’s a lot of the time!
  3. Printers use a lot of energy.

Paper consumption

Research has suggested that the average worker prints six wasted pages per day, equating to 1,410 wasted pages per year which for a 10,000 employee organisation would equate to over 1,500 trees. (Xerox – Creating Sustainable Value)

The amount of wood and paper we throw away each year is enough to heat 50 million homes for 20 years. www.thegoodhuman.com

Though paper recovery rates in the US have increased in recent years, paper still represents one of the biggest components of solid waste in landfills – 26 million tons (or 16% of landfill solid waste) in 2009. When paper decomposes in a landfill, it releases methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide. (http://www.forestethics.org/paper-the-facts)

There are over 4 trillion paper documents in the U.S. alone and they are growing at a rate of 22% per year. (PricewaterhouseCoopers)

We throw away 45% of our print outs within 24 hours. (Taevs, Debra. “Recycling’s Pushed ‘Reduce, Reuse’ Out of Equation.” Portland Metro Sustainable Industries Journal.)

Consumption of Tree’s

One tree yields 8,333 sheets of paper or 500 sheets (one ream) = 6% of a tree! www.conservatree.com

40% of the world’s industrial logging goes into making paper, and this is expected to reach 50% in the near future. www.conservatree.org

Nearly 4 billion trees worldwide are cut down each year for paper, representing about 35 percent of all harvested trees. Ecology Global Network

Energy consumption

The largest energy-consuming industries in the United States are bulk chemicals, oil and gas, steel, paper, and food products; these five industries account for 60 percent of industrial energy use, but only 22 percent of the value of the products.Center for Climate and Energy Solutions

Paper production is the third most energy-intensive of all manufacturing industries, using over 12% of all energy in the industrial sector. The paper and pulp industry is also the fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the manufacturing sector.

Production of 1 ton of copy paper uses 11,134 kWh (same amount of energy used by an avg household in 10 months) Earth Friendly

Water consumption

Making one single sheet of copy paper can use over 13oz. of water– more than a typical soda can. (Clean Technologies in U.S. Industries: Focus on the Pulp and Paper Industry.” United States-Asia Environmental Partnership, September 1997)

The water footprint of printing and writing paper is estimated to be between 300 and 2600 m3/ton (2-13 litres for an A4 sheet). (The green and blue water footprint of paper products: Methodological considerations and quantification by P.R. van Oel and A.Y. Hoekstra July 2010)

So, yes there is an environmental impact to scanning and removing paper as early as possible in the process. Scanning and managing our documents electronically is not just about saving money or improving our productivity it is also an essential component to a very viable green strategy!

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