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San Francisco Examiner

Pileup on the Info Highway
Paperless office? Not a chance with compulsive 
e-mail printing

By Paul Bacon

It’s more menacing than a chain letter. It’s more complex than a pyramid scam. It’s an environmental nightmare, and if you work for a large organization, you may already be part of the problem: e-mail.

Yes, the road to a paperless office is actually lined with reams of compulsively printed and archived e-mail messages. This pathological waste of pulp feeds on the fact that, despite our increasing reliance on electronic mail, we still don’t completely trust it.

But why not? Just because a message appears on a computer screen, is it somehow less real than a letter delivered in person? Why can’t we grasp the symbolism of the squiggly lines and dots that comprise written language unless it is printed out, stapled and put under our noses?

“We still live in a paper-based society,” says Chicago Recycling Coalition executive director Anne Irving. “E-mail is everywhere, but some offices are wasting more paper than ever before.”

Michael Wilkes, a San Francisco-based Internet consultant agrees, saying the problem has reached “absurd” proportions. While consulting for a public utility company, Wilkes noticed its employees were printing out “far too much” of their e-mail. “When a message came in from the network,” he says, “it would be humming out of the laser printer in a matter of seconds. No matter how irrelevant the message was, they’d print out a copy as a matter of course.”

The resulting mass of paper, most wasted on unread documents, was enough to fill a two-inch binder every two weeks--for each person on the network. Wilkes says the company printed out so much e-mail that it had to send boxes of it to expensive off-site storage facilities on a quarterly basis.

Other figures support the notion that the paperless office remains a pipe dream. In 1990, before the Internet and office e-mail became standard, the total paper used in American offices was 6.41 million tons. In 1994, when electronic communication was becoming commonplace, paper use increased to 6.76 million tons. Paper accounts for up to 70 percent of waste created in U.S. offices; in San Francisco alone, office workers generate 180 million pounds of waste paper every year.

“It’s impossible to know exactly how much of this paper waste is attributable to the proliferation of computers and e-mail, but it is certainly a sizable chunk,” said David Assmann, outreach coordinator for the San Francisco Recycling Program.

E-mail has become an indispensable office tool partly because of its ability to immediately distribute, or “cc,” to a large mailing list. The term “cc” harks back to the days before photocopiers and electric typewriters, when secretaries used the laborious “carbon copy” method to reproduce documents. Carbon copying required stuffing up to four sheets of paper into a typewriter--with a piece of carbon paper between each sheet--and banging hard enough on the keys to make the typed impression reach the last copy. In addition to building Olympian finger muscles, this method imposed a serious limit on how many people one could reach without using a printing press.

Since then, technology has brought a host of time- and energy-saving gadgets into the workplace. But even using today’s high-speed photocopiers, a mass mailing often requires someone to stuff envelopes, lick stamps and stand in line at the post office. Faxing, though handy for short messages, is a tedious way to send a long document, and voice phone calls can usually only be made one at a time. 

Enter the Internet and e-mail. Now we can instantly reach an entire community of networked people with the click of a computer mouse, requiring less effort than was once used to peck at a single typewriter key. But like cheap gas or free beer, a resource as accessible and inexpensive as the Internet is destined to be abused en masse.

One of the greatest sins of corporate and organizational existence is leaving someone “out of the loop.” Failure to advise co-workers and superiors of your activities risks making them look foolish, an act for which many will exact no less than blood as retribution. And when big projects and/or egos are at stake, even a short conversation between person A and person B must be recorded and immediately distributed to persons C through Z, lest the first pair be accused of collusion.

Add to this tendency the chilling fact that an organization can not accept anything as true without seeing it in writing. Pay raises, company picnics, even the death of a colleague are not recognized unless they are recorded and initialed by someone of rank. And no amount of documentation, no matter how exhaustive and well organized, is going to do any good if you can’t access it. 

Given the volatile nature of computer memory, the contents of which can vanish at the slightest electrical fluctuation, network glitch or disk “crash,” it is easy to understand that many office workers set their mental defaults to print mode.

When the paranoid, “cover your ass” mentality of organizational culture is allowed to express itself through the limitless channels of electronic communication, it becomes infinitely wasteful and redundant. Instead of being utilized to save on skyrocketing paper costs and help reduce deforestation, e-mail often serves as a faster medium through which more and more paper documents can travel.

But while our fears of accountability may be ingrained, and our evolution toward an entirely wired workplace may be irreversible, there are still a number of ways to stem the tide of waste that they create.

Net consultant Wilkes says the solution is in the software. He claims that up to 80 percent of the paper could be saved by changing the settings that automatically print out messages on different pages, each with its own address list.

“Sending a message to one address, even just a quick ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a previous message, generates lines and lines of Internet routing information,” he says. “This part is completely irrelevant to most people, and when you add to it a long list of ‘cc’ recipients, as little as 20 percent of most messages is actually readable.”

Irving of the Chicago Recycling Coalition suggest an educational approach. “People still don’t realize that many office information systems departments are backing up network data on tape and other reliable media,” she says. “If they knew how to properly utilize this resource, they might not feel the insecurity which makes them print everything out.”  # # #

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