It was my new year’s resolution on January 1st, 2013: avoid using paper wherever and whenever possible. That is now a little over a year ago – the perfect time for an evaluation.
The first question that comes to your mind might be: “Why on earth would you want to go paperless? Do you want the people working in the paper industry to lose their job?” As is often the case, the answer is both yes and no. Obviously I don’t want anyone to lose his or her job, but I’m not convinced that the people currently working in this industry should be doing that specific job in that specific industry forever and ever. Look at what’s happened time and again throughout history: at any given time, lots of people are doing jobs that did not even exist a decade/century/millenium before. And that fact doesn’t seem to have caused global unhappiness or depression amongst the human race.
Other factors, however – especially in the last century or so – have had major and noticable global consequences. And deforestation is definitely one of them. Trees are an important storage facility for CO2 and if we reduce the total amount of them to the extent we, humans, have done in the last few decades, it’s only pure logic that more CO2 ends up in the atmosphere. There is a scientific consensus now that global warming is a fact – and that this phenomenon is largely caused by human intervention. Yes, there are scientists that claim the opposite, but if you take the trouble of investigating a bit beyond the surface, these scientists usually either turn out to be paid by organizations or companies that clearly have no interest in exposing the truth about global warming, or turn out to be specialized in a scientific domain that has absolutely nothing to do with climate (would you accept an astronomer’s advice on what best to do if you experience severe stomach pain? – and I sincerely hope for you that you also won’t trust an astrologer’s advice on that matter, or in fact on any matter).
In case you are wondering by now: yes, I am aware that a lot of paper is not made from trees that are cut down, but rather from recycled paper. Depending on the source (and – not surprisingly – the interests of the organization the source belongs to), you find different numbers if you do an online search into the ratio of paper coming from recycling vs. paper coming from cutting down trees. But all sources still mention a very substantial part of paper originating directly from trees.
Your second question might be: “Will your effort to use less paper really make any difference if you look at things from a global perspective?” Once again: yes and no. Obviously my individual effort is not going to make a huge difference. No idea how many sheets of paper come out of a single tree, but let’s say my effort leads to 1 tree per year not being cut down. Why bother, right? Unless you start adding things up – billions of people making a similar effort will lead to billions of trees being cut down less. (Yes, that’s all put extremely simplistic, but that’s what is basically boils down to – you can leave comments to this post if you feel you have compelling arguments to prove me fundamentally wrong; I’ll gladly accept the challenge). If individuals don’t start taking their responsability by changing their individual behaviour, nothing will ever start changing.
Provided you’re still reading this, your third question might be: “Well, how did it go?” The answer is straightforward: surprisingly well. Once I had decided to go as paperless as possible one thing pretty much led to another semi-automatically. The crucial word in the previous sentence was decided. One of the big secrets to making resolutions become reality is your own attitude towards them. You have to make a clear decision to do whatever you want to do. No try to or do an effort to, but decide to. So that’s what I did.
The easy part was putting to practice the recommendation you find at the bottom of some e-mails that urges you to think carefully about the fact whether you really need to print the e-mail. Consistently asking yourself this question leads to an overwhelming amount of cases where the answer is no. Admittedly, there have also been cases where the answer was yes, usually for practical reasons – and then I of course printed the mails or documents. Printing e-mails and documents as a kind of default procedure is really a habit that a lot of people have developed. Because “it’s easier to read on paper than to read from a screen”. Or to ensure “that the mail/document doesn’t get lost when the computer breaks down or gets hacked”. These things indeed happen, the first usually at the most inconvenient moment, the second because you don’t have decent security software (my advice is obviously G Data – I’ve been working for G Data for 8 years now, so I can assure that the products are really top notch German quality). But is printing your e-mails really the recommended solution for all possible scenarios? It’s not like paper is a rock solid material. It’s been known not to interact very positively when confronted with elements like fire and water. E-mails stored in a cloud based system like Gmail or Hotmail will certainly survive some of the local catastrophes that might ruin printed mails. And you will also still be able to access them if you are forced to switch to another computer. The same goes for company mails stored on a central server. And should you have an e-mail solution that only stores your e-mails locally on a single computer: ever heard of backups? They’re quite useful also for the pictures of your children/pets/holidays you might then also have stored only on a single computer (yes, G Data also offers a good solution there). And for those that prefer reading prints vs. on screen: get a tablet.
Some of the tasks I was able to swtich from paper to tablet include use of the built in agenda (at work I was already using the Outlook planner, but at home I was still using a paper agenda for private matters) and taking notes. I specifically chose a tablet that comes with a stylus to be able to do this. It turned out to be a perfect solution for my desire to avoid paper and still be able to so some handwriting, as you can see in the screenshot. In case you would like to make some sense out of the scriblings: it’s from the preparation for a quiz (but even if you succeed in deciphering it all, it won’t be of any real use as the quiz was already held). The tablet also has a very nice feature to automatically convert whatever you write to digital text (and the initial tests I performed have clearly demonstrated to me that this works very nicely), but I don’t like to use it. Because you have to write at a slower pace and make sure to write every individual character quite clearly. And I prefer to scribble. The only requirement is that I can read it myself afterwards.
Apart from the tablet related stuff, the biggest paper reduction came from systematically letting authorities and companies know that I was fine with receiving a PDF instead of a letter sent by post. As I also have no intentions to cause dramatic jobs cuts at the postal services, I have compensated the lower amount of letters to be delivered with a higher amount of deliveries from the Amazons of this world. Some of those deliveries do include quite an amount of paper, I have to admit, as paper books still play an important role in my life (check the Recommended reading in the sidebar if you’re looking for something decent to read – it gets updated from time to time). From time to time I also read e-books. There are some very convenient features (like holding your finger at a word to get a pop up with the explanation or translation), but often a paper book is still my favourite. Also because I not only regularly buy books, but also go to the local library, where only printed books are available (although I know they’re looking into offering e-books).
Looking back the most difficult step was the agenda. Checking the paper agenda at home was part of my routine, which meant I had to develop the new habit of daily checking the agenda app on my tablet. Nothing dramatically went wrong; I almost forgot a dentist appointment (but was able to reschedule last minute), and I missed some birthdays, so once again apologies to those who received my congratulations ‘a bit late’ (in fact, I wonder if anyone noticed any difference – I’ve always been horrible with birthdays).
In the meantime, I have found a new challenge: stop seeing music as a collection of CDs. But let’s keep that for another blogpost.