Using paper in your office or college? Here’s how to reduce.

Various size envelopes. Photo: Clare O’Beara.
Various size envelopes. Photo: Clare O’Beara.

Recently I was asked for suggestions on reducing paper use once office staff return to the workplace. As ever, my response consists of tips and some information. The better informed we are about global environmental issues, the more likely we are to apply the tips.

Tips to document and reduce paper

Document how much paper each department uses. Then award a prize for the best department reducing its use / using least.

Pdfs can be distributed by e-mail or Drive link instead of print.

Print or photocopy only the required page/s.

Use a program like MS Word or browser option like Google Docs to convert a Pdf into a document, so you can print an individual page.

Use Google Jamboards / Drive / calendar apps for collaboration.

Phone app alternative to Post-its — Google it and a dozen appear.

Some paper notes we need, and some we don’t. Notebooks, loose leaf notes and calendar slips. Photo: Clare O’Beara.
Some paper notes we need, and some we don’t. Notebooks, loose leaf notes and calendar slips. Photo: Clare O’Beara.

Print both sides of paper.

Purchase recycled envelopes. Windowed envelopes are often not recyclable due to the mix of materials.

Use fewer A4 envelopes when material is not being posted. Use paperclips and a cover sheet/ Post-it or a re-usable slip cover (and make sure they do get kept and re-used).

Single use plastic is a familiar term now, but some of this is hidden inside padded envelopes, many of which could be re-used with a sticker or taped on scrap paper showing the new address.

Suggest only one copy may be printed per person of a long output, e.g. a film script or lengthy report. Individual heavy users could be asked to document their use, to make them more aware of the issue.

Re-use paper as scrap paper or print other side for small posters.

Creative paper re-use like Christmas / Hallowe’en / Valentine decorations.

Pitta bread lunch. Photo: Clare O’Beara.
Pitta bread lunch. Photo: Clare O’Beara.
Pitta bread lunch. Photo: Clare O’Beara.

Food packaging can be paper or plastic. Ask staff to bring in lunchboxes and leave the packaging waste at home. Provide re-usable utensils.

Keep paper waste separate from other waste such as teabags and food scraps. Paper needs to be clean for recycling. If paper cups are compostable too, they may go into a different waste stream with the teabags, but the lids probably won’t. Make users aware of these options.

Recyclable and compostable cup. Photo: Clare O’Beara.
Recyclable and compostable cup. Photo: Clare O’Beara.
Recyclable and compostable cup. Photo: Clare O’Beara.

Put up posters in classrooms asking students to use less paper, and in offices for the staff. Make a colourful infographic with a free program like Canva; it’s more likely to be read.

Graph paper is often used by students on some courses, but if they do more on screen they may not need it.

Some students do not write down notes or receive paper handouts. Handouts for class are often shared. These could be read on phone / laptop screen, although some lecturers do not like students using phones in class.

Many staff, part-time exam invigilators, mentors at inductions, etc. find it helpful to have written details / instructions to consult. Remember that the wi-fi, or a phone battery or college server, could all fail. Especially after normal office hours, written instructions and contact details are the ideal backup.

Phone directories and newspapers. Photo: Clare O’Beara.
Phone directories and newspapers. Photo: Clare O’Beara.
Phone directories and newspapers. Photo: Clare O’Beara.

User guides for equipment, and directories, are probably on line. If you can recycle the paper ones, you free up a lot of shelf space.

If you still get newspapers and magazines appearing, ask those who bring them to leave them in the canteen for others, instead of tossing them in a bin. Many people like to browse over coffee instead of looking at a screen.

Educate staff / students about printing issues.

· Paper manufacturing is a highly polluting process, which contaminates water.

· The majority of paper is manufactured in either China or Canada, as these countries have fewer environmental regulations. Russia also makes paper, spilling the waste into Lake Baikal.

Baikal — a book by Peter Matthiessen and Boyd Norton about the environmental degradation of this lake.

· The trees planted for paper in Sweden, another large producer, are spruce, monocrops which are bad for biodiversity.

· Transport of paper, which is heavy, gives it a high carbon footprint.

· Recycled paper has a lower carbon footprint but still uses water, energy and transport. Look for post-consumer-use recycling or a Forestry Stewardship Council mark.

· The 15 largest cargo ships emit more nitrogen and sulphur air pollutants than all the world’s cars.

Single use envelopes, some of which could be re-used. The padded envelopes contain single use plastic. Photo: Clare O’Beara.
Single use envelopes, some of which could be re-used. The padded envelopes contain single use plastic. Photo: Clare O’Beara.
Single use envelopes, some of which could be re-used. The padded envelopes contain single use plastic. Photo: Clare O’Beara.

· Inkjet printers are cheap to buy for home use, but the ink is dearer than champagne, and the cartridges clog if not in continual use.

· Manufacturers install chips to stop cheaper alternative cartridges being used. Often the cheap ones are not recycled.

· Laser printing is a much better option. If the laser cartridge has run out, take it out and shake it carefully for a couple of minutes before replacing. This will loosen enough toner for the end of your print job.

Laser printer catridges and laptop. Photo: Clare O’Beara.
Laser printer catridges and laptop. Photo: Clare O’Beara.
Laser printer cartridges and laptop. Photo: Clare O’Beara.

· Print cartridges are plastic, made from oil. 95% are not recycled. Even when you return them to the maker for re-use, they have an end-of-life. Cartridges are sold in cardboard and plastic packaging. 50 million cartridges went to landfill in the past decade. They have a high carbon footprint.

· The same applies to old printers. E-waste is often shipped to Africa and Asia and burned in the open air for the recoverable metals, rather than properly recycled.

Cardboard packaging. Photo: Clare O’Beara.
Cardboard packaging. Photo: Clare O’Beara.
Cardboard packaging. Photo: Clare O’Beara.

Environmental journalist, tree surgeon and expert witness, and former national standard showjumper. Author of 18 books of crime, science fiction, YA fiction.