Moving beyond paper
October 22, 2008 10:38 AM
Remember during the early 1990s when some predicted that software would eventually allow us to work in paperless offices?
Now, of course, we see that technology ironically has us printing out more than ever before, steadily increasing our demand for paper.
SF State is certainly no exception. The ubiquity of electronic communication and the emergence of iLearn, the university’s online classroom program, have done little to stem demand for paper on campus. With few exceptions, professors still print out syllabi and assignments, and students still print out their homework and essays. Though it is 2008, this habit of shoving paper into each other’s face is older than a Cubs World Series ring.
Bryan Ting, an environmental studies major, wanted to know just how much paper SF State uses and how much of it came from recycled sources. All that paper we use—at least 50,000 reams a year, according to Ting’s research done while interning at SF State Recycling Center—has to come from somewhere, and his findings uncovered another primitivity: up to 70 percent of the paper the university buys is “virgin,” with no recycled content.
This shocking find spurred Ting to start a petition asking SF State—which often touts its rising recycling numbers, composting and reduced energy use—to become a green leader in another avenue by purchasing only paper made from 100 percent post-consumer waste (PCW) paper. Hundreds of students have signed the petition so far, he said.
The main obstacle would be higher cost: a quick scan of office supply store Web sites shows 100 percent PCW paper costing up to a dollar or more per ream. But Ting said SF State could use its voluminous demand to its advantage and negotiate a bulk discount, a tactic it may not necessarily be using now.
Ting said SF State recently changed its paper purchasing protocol, buying paper in increments online from Office Max rather than in bulk and storing it on campus. Though this method may be more convenient, “you’re less likely to get the big discount,” he said.
While full conversion to 100 percent PCW paper “is what we’d absolutely love,” Ting said he understands if added cost meant it could not happen all at once. Even switching to 30 percent PCW paper would be a meaningful step in the right direction, and the price difference “isn’t that steep,” he said.
“Any action we take that takes our PCW level higher is something in which we would absolutely be a real leader [among universities]. It makes headlines for colleges to 30, so just imagine if we got to 50 or more,” Ting said.
Such a switch could effectively reduce carbon emissions associated with university operation, as it takes more energy to create virgin paper than to recycle it, Ting said. And of course, if we reduced demand for virgin paper by tens of thousands of reams, “we could save thousands of trees a year,” he said.
Hearing about Ting’s petition reminded me of just how much of the paper we do print is likely unnecessary. I have not crunched numbers like Ting, but I have anecdotal evidence to which most of you can relate.
A professor began one of my fall classes with an e-mail (zero pages so far) asking if I would please view his syllabus on iLearn (still zero) before the first day of instruction. “How contemporary,” I thought happily. “I can read the syllabus without printing it out and we do not even need to spend much time going over it in class.”
So of course, the first class featured the professor going over his iLearn page in a class overhead anyway, yet he still printed it out, single-sided on several pages and handed the syllabus out to more than a hundred students.
Perhaps there is a university protocol protecting a student’s right to access his or her syllabus, but surely it can be fine-tuned in today’s age to serve paper copies only to those who request them. I would not be surprised if a majority of students who got paper syllabi that day did not need it in the first place.
And in most classes, of course, the syllabus is just the beginning. Ting said he received a 1000-page reader—which could have been 500 pages had it been printed on both sides of the paper—for a class with about 200 students. That egregious example spurred him to ask: “How much resources went into this? How much paper does higher education use? And if you’re going to be using paper, why not use the kind that has the smallest environmental impact?”
Conversely, I took a few classes at SF State that tried to use iLearn and e-mail as much as possible. These classes dramatically reduced the amount of paper used and actually made it easier for me to keep track of things. Rather than fish through binders and folders of documents every time I needed to look up an assignment—admittedly, I am not the most organized student—I could simply click on a bookmarked link or iLearn resource.
In a time where visiting the Internet is a daily occurrence for most people, SF State already has the tools—e-mail and iLearn—to move us closer to the paperless society of which we once dreamed. If it also tweak its printers to print on both sides and buy only recycled paper, it could rein in a primitively wasteful aspect of our contemporary culture.
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