We finally convinced the School to introduce recycling bins in our part of the University! Well, trialling it at least – one floor of the building initially and then the rest of the School if it works out. You’ve got to start somewhere, right?
Well, my immediate feeling was: great! But this is negligible compared to how much we could be doing!
So I fired off an email to colleagues suggesting we should consider a more encompassing green strategy for reducing our overall impact on the environment – including reducing paper waste from our day-to-day routines (especially meetings!), reducing carbon footprint of travel, reducing energy consumption and switching to green electricity.
This appears to have gone down well with several positive responses – Paul Denison even pointing to the excellent work already having been done by the University in the previous year. In his own words:
SAM [School of Arts and Media] initiated a university wide discussion last year under the banner of ‘sustees‘. A symposium was held and week-long series of talks and activities held. The university is now looking to incorporate sustainability into its corporate responsibility statement and I have been part of this consultation. We have also developed a new programme in sustainable design which is hoping to recruit this year.
What also followed was a string of suggestions as to what we could do – three specifically about removing paper from our workflows:
- No longer print study guides, module- and course handbooks, but instead make them available online via Blackboard. We can run off copies for those students who still require them, and perhaps make a folded single-sheet of A3 version with timetable on the inside and other information perceived as essential in paper form on the front and back.
- No longer print grade sheets for module and award boards (that will be where you’ve got a bunch of academics all sat with their own pile of 500-odd grade sheets just to nod in acknowledgement for each page). It has been suggested we use a computer and project the grade sheets for all to see (and collectively nod at), thus saving us printing anything.
- Meetings. We go through quite a few of those every year and it seems a phenomenal waste to have to print agenda, minutes of previous meeting(s) and all reference documents for each and every person. All essential, but often only referred to sparingly during the meeting. Again an obvious solution seems to be to project the information for all to see and discuss during the meeting, thus saving everyone from printing it individually.
Clearly then the solution to removing paper from academics’ workflow appears, at least in the above examples, to be the use of electronic resources – one way or another. Thus my question is this: will this ‘paperless’ office actually pollute more or less? That is, what is the net benefit (indeed if any) in environmental impact of replacing paper with electronic resources?
Some issues to consider:
- The electricity consumed by accessing the replaced papers electronically – this is not simply a one off cost, but required each and every time the document is accessed, by every person that needs to access it.
- The electricity consumed by storage – i.e the electronic storage of that document on a centrally located server that is always on.
- The obvious environmental impact of producing the computers used to access this electronic information.
These points might appear as if they are going to have a miniscule impact, but just as each single sheet of paper has a minimal impact on its own, it is the cumulative volume of each usage that causes a problem.
Of course, there are other practical advantages and disadvantages by moving away from paper – deserving of a blog post in their own right. However, my concern here is that we must not immediately assume that just because we can remove one problem (the arguably wasteful use of paper), we are necessarily free from the larger impact of this problem (environmental impact, or if you like carbon footprint, of academia).Indeed any strategy that considers the reduction in wasteful use of paper should simultaneously consider how to minimise the impact of the electronic resources that replaces this – for instance by reducing the need for repeatedly accessing information, by streamlining procedures that rely on this information, and (perhaps most obviously) move to using renewable energy sources to support this increased use in electricity.
Please feel free to offer your thoughts and comments below – the above is just my stream of consciousness on the issue. I particularly welcome any feedback on research that compares the environmental impact of paper use versus electronic resources. I’m sure there is a threshold where one becomes more environmentally friendly than the other, but would love to know what it is!