Sunday, 23 November 2008

Please don’t print this posting

Did you know that one piece of office paper, for example 80gsm A4, uses 600ml water and creates 34g of CO2 and 2.4g landfill waste in its lifetime?

That figure is pretty hard to come by which is part of the problem.

My figures came from Australia and when I looked into others from the USA, the claim for another paper was for 8g carbon per letter sheet.

I suppose Australia has to import more of its wood pulp and it depends on where you're counting, whether at the mill or when delivered to the user as all those miles on trucks must make a difference and stuff like bond for letterheads must take more energy to make than plain copier paper.

Let's just go with the high figure for now as I hope to show it's not just the CO2 that matters. If each sheet of plain copier paper represents seven times its weight in carbon emissions, that means every 500 sheets of plain white paper is 17 kg of CO2.

Now add to that, that over its lifetime, the manufacture of a typical office printer and its consumables creates 110 kg of CO2 per year. A big photocopier/network printer creates vastly more but is hopefully more efficient per page.

The electricity used by a small office printer on standby (mine at least) emits at least another 200 kg CO2 per year.

In the USA the average office worker uses 10,000 sheets of paper per year.

Combined with envelopes, that could be a tonne (1000kg) of carbon emissions per worker, per year.

One of my employers has measured the carbon emissions from the office lighting and heating alone at 350 tonnes per year. They haven’t counted the paper use yet but we're going to and it could be very scary. Lots of organisations like ours admit in their public carbon reports that it is very hard to do this and depends wholly on the suppliers' estimates. Addendum: our main copier paper is Evolve Office 80gsm which is 100% recycled and the data from the mill (in Kent) says the CO2 emission in its production is 728kg per tonne. I reckon that's 3.64g per sheet but then there's the shipping to the warehouse and delivery too.

"But we use recycled paper in our copier and for all our literature" I hear the MD chime in. Not that they need to defend the organisation as it has just installed a biomass boiler and committed to a whole list of actions after a Carbon Trust audit. We didn't do that just for the brownie points, although there are some, but because it saves money. Large organisations are being required to establish their carbon baselines by 2012 so everyone's getting quite interested in carbon accounting now, at least I hope so. If they can find their carbon footprint now they'll know what kind of target reduction is possible and what it will cost when they are forced to act.

But when all that's done, where's the next round of carbon reduction going to come from? Then I think it's going to get really interesting. I think managers would rather install a fancy thermostat at twice the price of enforcing changes in employee behaviour because a thermostat doesn't complain when told what to do.

Using recycled paper is a good thing. Recycled paper saves trees but carbon is still emitted from the energy required to process it. A tonne of virgin pulp creates roughly 2.1 tonnes of CO2 emission. One tonne of recycled pulp causes 1.86 tonnes of CO2 emission. But everyone must cut consumption as well as recycle. Paper is the third greatest source of industrial carbon emissions.

My employer hasn't measured the cost and volume of the paper it uses yet because that requires data entry from stacks of invoices by hand but it's working on getting it done. Maybe suppliers could help by formatting their invoices better to enable that?

Apart from the carbon issue, our paper use is a high priority because the cost of paper these days gives enough incentive. Although everyone wants to reduce the charity's carbon footprint, allocating resources to do that has to be considered mostly on a financial basis. Our new heating controls will cost £8000 to install and will save 30 tonnes of CO2 annually but businesses will only do such things - until there are carbon quotas - because the cost can be paid back in energy savings in 2.5 years.

My low-end guestimate puts providing my co-workers' paper and electricity and printers at around 6 pence a sheet. There's a handy bit of software by which you can log network printing and charge it to clients called Papercut* (and it's free for up to five users) which can count the paper and printers used and so you can count the carbon value of your printing.

If everyone where I work reduced their paper consumption by 1000 copies, I reckon the bottom line would be improved by enough to raise wages 1%. That's a pretty good incentive besides the carbon impact.

Saving paper saves the bottom line which also means for grant supported organisations like mine that jobs can be funded for longer. So save paper = save the planet = save your job.

Some habits that can reduce the waste of office paper:

  • Learn how to use the network dialogue box to send jobs to the most efficient printer.
  • Have another person check a big mail-merge document for typos before you hit print.
  • Always check in your printer dialog box that you are printing only the pages you want. This especially applies to printing off stuff on the web or emails.

  • Don’t print in colour unless there’s a very compelling reason.

  • Use a printer with two or more feed trays and load once-used paper in one tray or keep a letter tray beside the printer for print 'boo boos' and load this paper in when printing drafts.

  • Make sure you have a printer than accepts used paper without grumbling. If your printer can't, save your ‘boo boo’ paper to put in a printer that does.

  • Try to keep waste paper (once printed both sides) out of recycling collection. Think of ways to reuse it. You can shred it and use it for packaging or put it in chicken coops or horse stables then add it to compost. You can also mix it with starch or PVA to make things like seedtrays, egg boxes or carnival costumes.

*note to Papercut: Wouldn't it be great if there was a widget in your printer dialogue box that popped up and said "you are about to emit .... kg of CO2. Do you really need to do this?"

Further reading:


HP Printers



A great explanation of the production cycle


  1. Hi,

    I'm one of the developers at PaperCut (actually the green one that works on most of our environmental impact features). I like the idea of adding the "C02" footprint information to the popup dialog. I've added that one to the list and we'll look at getting it done soon. Maybe we could also implement C02 quotas so rather than being limited by a budget, you could be limited to a set quantity of C02.

    In the meantime I should point out that we've recently added a new Environmental Impact Vista sidebar gadget. You can view this here:

    It's not as "in your face" as a popup at the time of print, but is still pretty prominent and will help draw users attention to the problem.

    Thanks for the tips. It's great to see others share my passion (or is it frustrations) for reduced paper use.

  2. Chris, thank you for the feedback. Good to see it's not just going into the ether! I'll be digging into UK paper figures a bit more and posting how our paper saving drive gets on.