Worldwide use of office paper has leveled off in the last decade; young people are used to reading documents on a screen and less inclined to print them out. Here’s how you can take advantage of this trend and move towards a paperless office, increasing productivity and saving money, space, time, carbon emissions, trees.

Despite the growth of global commerce, worldwide use of office paper has leveled off in the last decade and is now decreasing thanks, at least in part, to the younger generation, brought up in the personal-computer age, who are more comfortable reading documents on a screen and less inclined to print them out. But the cost to business and the planet of a paper-based office remain staggering.

Consider these facts:

      1. U.S. businesses use about 21 million tons of paper every year
      2. A ream of virgin office paper weighing about three pounds requires approximately seven and a half pounds of raw wood ingredients.
      3. Paper and paperboard products make up 37.5% of the U.S. waste stream headed for our landfills, making paper the biggest component of the waste stream.
      4. The pulp and paper industry is the single largest consumer of water used in industrial activities in developed countries and is the third greatest industrial greenhouse gas emitter, after the chemical and steel industries.
      5. U.S. companies spend approximately $20 on labor costs in order to file a document, $120 on the labor required to find a misfiled document and $220 to reproduce a lost document.

How much does paper cost your business? Clearly, the health of the environment and the bottom line of most small businesses would improve if we could significantly reduce the amount of paper we consume and increase our recycling efforts. The good news is that advances in the modern office computer and more recently, the electronic document, have made the goal of paperless day-to-day operations a more practical possibility.

While some people will always prefer a physical copy of whatever they’re reading or working on and might be slow to adapt to a more virtual way of working or communicating, the improved efficiency, reduction in waste and money saved through the elimination of paper, printing, copying, ink cartridges, etc, make undeniable sense for any business. And for your employees or customers who appreciate a more personal touch, there’s always the phone!

Aside from the mental benefits of reducing clutter (ever tried being productive in a messy room?), a paperless office is also easier to organize and more eco-friendly. Here are some easy ways to begin to cut back on your paper usage:

  • Think before printing emails or documents – would the electronic version suffice?
  • When you do have to print something, print double-sided or on the blank side of used paper – encourage people to return their one-sided paper to a bin near the printer for reuse
  • Eliminate direct mail – if your company regularly sends letters, catalogs, etc, consider switching to PDFs or newsletters sent to an email list instead
  • Got a package in the mail? Reuse cardboard boxes and mailers
  • Scan important paper documents, then recycle them, freeing up more office space by emptying your file cabinets – companies on average spend $25,000 to fill a typical four-drawer file cabinet, $2,000 to maintain it annually.3
  • Switch to electronic billing for accounts payable and receivable – check out programs such as Intuit
  • Giving a presentation? Use a program such as PowerPoint or Keynote, then email attendees your file so they can follow along – no need for a hard copy


Of course, increased reliance on computers requires its own set of guidelines: Make sure databases and folders are well-organized for easy access and maximum efficiency. And most importantly, be sure to back up! For most operations, an external hard drive for data storage is a wise investment and can help prevent loss of important files.

Another easy way to reduce paper usage and increase your operation’s efficiency is through the use of electronic interactive documents. This format is perfect for documents that need to be easily accessed and edited by many different people within an organization (e.g., employee handbooks and training manuals). Revising an operating guide or training manual could involve days of labor and hundreds of dollars in printing and binding, along with the associated waste. If these documents were in electronic format, the update may take only a few hours to implement and cost little or nothing.

For collaborative or ongoing projects, to-do lists, etc, use interactive documents such as Google Docs or WikiSpaces. With these, you can create documents, spreadsheets, presentations, etc that can be accessed by many different people, make quick and easy updates or changes, and designate varying levels of accessibility – employees designated as administrators will be able to create and edit projects and documents, while others can merely view them.

Also, check out Dropbox, a program that syncs your files online and across computers. Saving or updating a document in a Dropbox folder on one computer adds or updates it on all computers, mobile devices, etc that you’ve installed Dropbox on; all files are also backed up on the Dropbox website.

With all of these paperless options for cutting costs and waste, increasing efficiency and streamlining our operations, it is easy being green!


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About The Author

Scott Cooney

Scott Cooney (twitter: scottcooney) is an adjunct professor of Sustainability in the MBA program at the University of Hawai'i, green business startup coach, author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill), and developer of the sustainability board game GBO Hawai'i. Scott has started, grown and sold two mission-driven businesses, failed miserably at a third, and is currently in his fourth. Scott's current company has three divisions: a sustainability blog network that includes the world's biggest clean energy website and reached over 5 million readers in December 2013 alone; Pono Home, a turnkey and franchiseable green home consulting service that won entrance into the clean tech incubator known as Energy Excelerator; and Cost of Solar, a solar lead generation service to connect interested homeowners and solar contractors. In his spare time, Scott surfs, plays ultimate frisbee and enjoys a good, long bike ride. Find Scott on

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