Could we live without paper?


Dematerialisation is coming to all dimensions of our everyday lives. Books, bills, travel tickets, even exams and papers are being replaced by their digital counterparts. Cheaper, faster, lighter and « greener », dematerialisation is more and more attractive and initiatives to reduce paper use are multiplying. But does this mean we could be heading towards a world without paper?


Global consumption of paper and paper products is expected to exceed 445 million tons by 2015, according to research led by Global Industry Analysts. But making paper is a costly process, in terms of energy, money and environmental impacts.

“To make paper, you either grind woodchips mechanically to separate the fibres, or cook them with chemicals to remove the lignin, which binds the fibres together. You then dissolve the fibres in vast quantities of water and push them through a slit into a machine that squeezes out the water and dries the sheets,”

explains a journalist from The Economist. This triple cost has encouraged NGOs and public authorities to promote more sustainable paper consumption, which has of course been made much easier by the development of New Information and Communication Technologies (NICT) – paper is indeed less indispensable than it was just a few decades ago. Yet, a world without paper still seems a way away.

The need for paper progressively disappears

Alternatives to paper are already part of our daily lives: e-books, digital advertisements, credit cards, e-tickets, etc. More recently, contactless credit cards, which do not need to be inserted into a reader to process a payment, are pushing things a step further and eliminate the need to withdraw cash when you have no coins. Water-shoots in toilets and edible wrapping such as Wikipearl could eventually mean we won’t need toilet paper or paper-based packaging anymore. Many airlines and train companies already allow travellers to register their boarding pass on their phone or on their loyalty card. And low-cost airline EasyJet announced this year that they were working on a “paperless” plane: they are seeking to replace all types of paper on board with digital pads, in an attempt to improve fuel efficiency, cut costs and reduce the airline’s carbon footprint. Getting rid of paper does seems practical: everything is grouped in the same place, generally in your phone; it lightens bags and saves printing time; sorting and recycling paper waste becomes a chore from the past.

Education is also a major testing ground for life without paper. What if students could take their exams on computers? Test We, a French start-up, offers software students can install on their own computer to take their exams. To prevent cheating, the software makes it impossible to exit full-screen mode, and a code provided by the supervisor at the beginning of the test ensures equality between participants: the exam starts and ends at the same time for everyone. According to TestWe’s founders, with the transition to digital, a university like La Sorbonne in Paris could save 15 tons of paper each year – the equivalent of 325 trees. And beyond sitting exams, marking can be digitalised too. In 2014, for the first time, prestigious French engineering school Polytechnique asked teachers to mark papers on tablets to save time – and money. These innovations may be the first steps in a true revolution within an education system which is already being transformed by the development of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): online – and often free – courses provided by famous universities or specialised websites, where lessons, exams and exchanges are all digital.

According to French philosopher Jacques Derrida, there is “mock paper in the screen.” The most recent innovations seem to be proving him right, since screens are increasingly adopting the best properties of paper: flexibility, readability and lightness. The Human Media Lab at Queen’s University is for instance working on paperfold, a shape-changing smartphone that allows users to flip open up to three flexible electrophoretic displays to provide extra screen surface when needed. Similarly, Sony has created the Digital Paper, a hybrid e-reader enabling users to handwrite on digital documents, share and save them: the versatility of paper combined with the ease of digital documents. This phenomenon encourages professionals in the paper sector to move from a product-oriented to a service-oriented approach. For instance, Brian Mathew, Assistant Director for Virginia Tech’s newly formed Center for Innovation in Learning, plans to make libraries into places “for experiences” instead of places to read only. In that world, who needs actual paper?


Promote sustainable paper instead of replacing it

In Les Cahiers de la Médiologie, writer and literary critic Pierre-Marc de Biasi writes that paper is “what we solicit to elaborate, communicate and transmit our thinking.” He insists on the fact that paper can be touched, and that it bears our memories. He also stresses paper’s numerous uses: it can be printed, be used for packaging or serve as a hygienic tool, in the case of toilet paper. For the supporters of the disconnection movement, who believe we need to spend less time in front of our screens, paper is a strong ally. On its website, paper producer Domtar supports this view, stating that paper is an integrated part of the creation process in companies, that it helps us stay focused on what we are doing and that the forest used for its production will at least stay a forest rather than being turned into a car park.

The negative impact of paper on the environment is nevertheless a major concern for the paper industry, which strives to produce and promote sustainable papers.

In 2013, the Confederation of European Paper Industries asked teams to develop alternative production processes to reduce costs both in economic and environmental terms, and to add value to paper. The winning proposal, which is in the process of being implemented, involved using what is called “deep eutectic solvents” to dissolve wood and separate out the lignin. “These solvents occur naturally: plants produce them during droughts. They would essentially turn papermaking into a biochemical business, cutting primary energy use by 40%. They would also generate useful by-products, such as pure lignin, a raw material for bulk chemicals, and a form of cellulose used in high-value chemicals,” The Economist reported. Other innovations in the field are the erasable paper (actually erasable ink) currently being tested by Xerox or the use of the Garamond typeface, recommended by a 14 year-old American to help his country’s government reduce printing costs. In the corporate world, companies are also looking to reduce their paper consumption, with the help of organisms such as Ecofolio.

Even though the need for paper is rapidly decreasing in all fields, its use is clearly incompressible to a certain extent. In its simplicity, paper is a powerful tool to help us disconnect from our screens, share, touch, focus and take time away from the pace imposed by our digital lives. It is a cultural and cognitive tool which is and can remain complementary to digital. Seeking to reduce its use as far as possible is of course crucial. But the proportion of paper production which will undoubtedly remain should be the focus of our best efforts to develop sustainable paper products and continue exploring more efficient ways to recycle them.

Photos ©  Andrey_Popov via shutterstock

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