For more than 20 years now, we’ve been hearing about the promise of the paperless office. And for nearly as long, people have been debunking the idea.

Way back in the early 1980s, someone remarked that we’d get a paperless office about the same time as we got a paperless bathroom. Well, the

Japanese apparently have developed a paperless bathroom, but we’re not much closer to a paperless office than we ever were.

It’s not for lack of technology. Document imaging makes it possible to store electronically a lot of things that previously had to be on paper. E-mail has dramatically reduced the amount of information printed out simply so it can be mailed or faxed from place to place. The Web makes staggering amounts of information widely available to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection.

No, the major barrier to the paperless office is us: People. It seems that for most office workers, paper ranks as an addictive substance right up there between crack cocaine and coffee.

Ivey Business Consulting Group did a survey of office workers and decision-makers in August of last year. It involved 66 interviews, all in Toronto and southern Ontario, with people in the private sector and government. The sample isn’t large enough to be conclusive — the survey’s main purpose was to help Lexmark Canada Inc., its sponsor, promote its printers — but the survey’s findings agree with what we see around us every day.

After looking at the Ivey survey I tracked my printing for three working days. I averaged 18 pages per day. Research material for columns and articles, which needs to be kept on file in one place for a fairly long time, accounts for most of my printing.

I’m sure there’s a workable electronic alternative, but I haven’t got around to implementing one yet.

The Ivey study mentions people who print every piece of e-mail they receive.

Apparently they either don’t trust the electronic version or haven’t learned to organize messages in their e-mail software.

Among the other stories I’ve heard are: A library employee printing an entire catalogue record to give a patron a call number that could have been written on a Post-It note; a worker doing data entry who prints out each record after she enters it; and people repeatedly printing out multi-page documents from a Web site even though the only information they actually need is all on the first page (print just page 1 — it’s not hard).

Natural Resources Canada estimates Canadians used 8.1 million tonnes of paper and paperboard in 2001. Various estimates say it takes 10 to 17 trees to make a tonne of paper. Taking the median figure of 13.5 trees per tonne of paper, that’s 109.35 million trees per year.

Technology that makes it easier to read on screen would help.

But in the end, it really comes down to people.

Grant Buckler is a Kingston, Ont.-based freelance writer. gbuckler@cogeco.ca

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