Exploring the Environmental Impact of Paper-led Processes

Since Greta Thunberg burst onto the scene, pleading with politicians and the public to take climate change seriously, environmental concern has been front and centre of almost every news channel and front page across the country.

Businesses often prioritise the bottom line over other concerns, but, as responsible citizens,it’s important that we consider how the way we work affects the world around us. But what are the facts? What can be done? And why is this all so important?

Paper – What’s the Problem?

Quite simply – the environmental impact of paper’s life cycle is significant. In fact, it’s the third largest industrial polluter of our water, soil and air.

There are a number of ways that paper production has a negative effect on our planet:

  • when paper is made, bleach is often used in the manufacturing process – this can result in toxic materials being released into water, soil and air
  • when paper rots, it releases methane gas – which is 25 times more toxic than CO2
  • even if paper is recycled, it can harm the environment – the process often uses fossil fuels, and the removal of ink from the paper also releases toxic materials

Printer inks are also harmful to the environment from the point of production all the way to disposal. These inks release harmful toxins and the plastic casing is an additional contributor to pollution and climate change.

Let’s not forget that the production of paper is also named as a significant contributor to deforestation.

What We Can Do About It

After understanding the environmental impacts of paper-led processes, it could be a natural inclination to want to somehow reduce those impacts.

One obvious way we can reduce the effect of paper production on the environment is to stop using paper. Digitisation is the most common way this is occurring, and it offers a range of benefits for a business as well as for the environment, including:

  • increased productivity
  • saves space
  • helps make documentation easier
  • makes sharing easier
  • more secure way to manage personal data
  • saves money

If you’re considering reducing paper use in your business, one way to do this is to look at how automation can help.

Automating processes that would usually involve forms is a common way to reduce paperwork, but you could also take this opportunity to explore the other processes that you could automate – not only to reduce paper waste but also to streamline your workflow.

It’s important to include your workforce in workplace changes. One way to do this is to ask them for innovative ideas to save paper or reduce paper use. Encouraging creativity and initiative is a great way to develop team spirit, and if you enact some of their ideas, you’ll often find the changes are more successful when they’ve come from the workforce rather than from management.

It’s Not Quite As Simple As That…

Although it seems common sense to reduce paper, and it’s easy to understand how the life cycle of paper can have a negative impact on the environment, it isn’t the only issue. Paper production is a long-standing manufacturing process, and we understand a lot about it, but we understand far less about the impact of digital alternatives.

The manufacturing of electronic items has a significant carbon footprint. It often requires unsustainable power sources for production, and we are yet to fully understand the impact of ‘e-waste’. There isn’t yet an average environmental footprint for e-waste, so it’s hard to see the complete life cycle.

We must also consider the steps taken by the paper industry to reduce carbon footprints, reduce waste, encourage greener recycling processes and commitments to sustainable forestry practices.

Things to Consider

Despite the issues not being quite as black and white as we perhaps first thought, it’s still good practice to try to reduce paper use at work; both for the environment but also to improve and streamline processes.

However, these things take time, and as with any significant change, it requires some planning and commitment. You may experience a temporary loss of productivity whist the change takes place, and there can be some additional costs involved. You should also research any relevant government regulations or legal requirements that you may need to make adjustments for. You may find that you have a skills deficit that you need to address, you experience resistance to change, or you have issues with system stability.

Despite these challenges, as responsible professionals, it’s our duty to show our commitment to our environment and to our planet. We must each do our bit, and encourage others to do the same.

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Post by Carrie Kleiner

Carrie Kleiner was instrumental in taking GOV.UK's blogging platform from its infancy through to being the most established government blogging platform in the world; home to over 100 blogs and thousands of contributors. Carrie wrote Government Digital Service's first editorial strategy and went on to become the Head of Content and Editor-in-Chief at UK Parliament - writing their first ever content strategy and editorial direction.

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