The balance between printed and electronically managed information

The paper and printing industry continues to exist in a world where notions of environmental sustainability are becoming increasingly prominent.

October 26, 2012

The paper and printing industry continues to exist in a world where notions of environmental sustainability are becoming increasingly prominent.

According to Océ South Africa MD, Dave Clark, it is important, within this context, to grasp what some of the issues for analogue and digital document management solutions are, and to understand why both types of solutions need to co-exist today as they co-evolve into the future.

“For the purposes of this discussion, analogue refers to traditional methods of displaying and storing documents and data, through the use of printing and paper. Digital refers to innovations in document and data management, but also covers technology innovations made in the machines that print,” he explains.

“Let’s look at the viewpoint of digital data management. It is progressive, with a strong opposing view of the print and paper industry. It associates paper manufacturers, suppliers and users as collaborating in the gradual destruction of the planet. It pushes for change and evolution with technology. However, the global impact of data storage was featured in the media quite a lot in late 2009 and early 2010. For example, Google was attacked for its high carbon footprint resulting from energy guzzling power centres that keep their network servers in operation, 24 hours a day, seven days a week (Leake and Woods 2010). Material health issues around items like e-readers should not go without comment here; there is an impact upon the minerals and water to produce them, they require batteries to be powered and there are questions as to how responsibly they will be disposed of at the end of their life (Goleman and Norris 2010),” says Clark.

He maintains that the contrasting perspective is analogue and that some groups can hold an alarmist stance against digital solutions claiming that hardware and current production, energy use and disposal frameworks have long term consequences for sustainability.

Clark elaborates: “Its standpoint is that paper pulp, or wood fibre, is a renewable source, whereas man-made and precious metal materials are required to manufacture and run digital hardware. This group of opinion-holders wishes to keep things more or less the same as they have always been – or otherwise put a halt to the current digital approach. Often a goal of such groups is to promote the responsible production and use of print and paper, and one of their many mandates is to lobby print industry partners to join them in confronting companies generating high data storage carbon emissions.”

Aside from increased levels of carbon emissions, there are the issues of reforestation and the long-term effects to the biosphere, animal species and their habitats. Furthermore, there are still concerns about the amount of water and natural resources that are needed to manufacture wood pulp. Today, there is a pressing need to explore some innovative global invention, such as an alternative to paper or a completely renewable energy resource, which can eliminate these worries. Many of the solutions that are currently available are eco-efficient; much work is being done so that there are more eco-effective options.

“Knowing what the issues are today, the analogue versus digital document management issue exists in a context where knowledge workers need a range of solutions. They seek help to manage eco-efficiently in the shorter term, with the aim to do it eco-effectively in the longer term. It is worth considering a standpoint where analogue and digital solutions co-exist, whilst evolving towards an ideal system,” says Clark.

By definition, efficient means “doing more with less”. Henry Ford said in 1926: “You have to get the most of out of power, out of the material, and out of the time.” The challenges of being eco-efficient mean minimising the damage to the environment, because change is affected within the same system that caused the initial problem. Eco-effectiveness means reviewing the original system and trying to come up with completely alternative models. This means, for example, creating products that can return to industrial cycles and supply high-quality raw materials for new products (Braungart and McDonough 2002).

In addition to all this, the world changed a couple of years ago. When the global economic crisis hit the banks and construction industries, this in turn hit the print and paper industry. The new economic world, alongside the fears we have for our planet, has given the impetus to the paper and printer industry to innovate.

Says Clark: “No business at the turn of the 21st century will return to printing and storing 100 percent of their information and communications on paper, while eliminating all paper-based printing is difficult to foresee. What is true is that there are users currently operating in a very analogue manner, while early adapters are embracing digital alternatives to manage their documents. So which way is the way forward? The answer is to maintain a realistic balance. A balance between printed and electronically managed information and to enable customers to manage how to use traditional materials and processes, as well as innovative and sustainable options that are kind to the environment and the people who live in it.”