For years, companies have talked about achieving the paperless office. But according to Forrester Research, we're still making a billion photocopies every day. It’s crazy when you think about it: We print, we file, we keep it around for a while, then we call the shredder truck to take it all away, after which it gets recycled into new paper and goes through the whole process again. Sometimes the loop is even shorter than that; a document gets read and then shred, simply because that’s how it has always been done.
Companies like Epson, which makes printers, have a vested interest in the process continuing this way; they write in their marketing material:
The enduring universal appeal of paper lies in its simplicity as a communication tool. Information on the highly portable and always convenient medium of paper is easy to read, easy to digest, and easy to remember.
And easy to misplace, misfile and misuse if the information is confidential. Really, it's not hard to understand why people want to get rid of it. But Epson is not going down without a fight; the company has just developed PaperLab, an in-office paper-making machine that takes your waste paper, “fiberizes” it, turning the paper into “long thin cottony fibers.” It adds a binder and presses it into shiny new white paper. It’s fast, turning out 14 pages a minute. It’s dry, using almost no water.
It’s pretty amazing, if it works as well as they say. Traditional recycled paper is never 100 percent recycled because the fibers deteriorate in each pass, so it has to be mixed with some new stock. Here, they are promising high quality paper in various colors, gauges and finishes, all depending on the binder they add in.
There are probably lots of institutions that would love this machine including banks, law firms and security agencies that shred their documents on site for security reasons. Now the documents never go offsite, but get turned into new paper right on the premises. As Epson notes:
Until now enterprise has had to hire contractors to handle the disposal of confidential documents or has shredded them themselves. With a PaperLab, however, enterprise will be able to safely dispose of documents onsite instead of handing them over to a contractor. PaperLab breaks documents down into paper fibers, so the information on them is completely destroyed.
But really, when you look at the video, and see a piece of paper going around in a circle, from printing to reading to shredding to making new paper to printing, it becomes pretty clear why people are trying to go paperless. This is a hugely inefficient process.
When you read the patent for the machine, and see the old paper get chopped, de-inked, rolled, coated and pressed, it just seems like an awful lot of work. Epson talks of paper's "simplicity as a communications tool" but there is nothing simple about its manufacture here. Surely a better idea would still be to get rid of the paper altogether. In fact, (see related links below) in the office of the future there are no file cabinets, no fixed places for your paper, perhaps not even an office that companies call their own as they use co-working spaces.
This is a very clever machine, and one can see why Epson has developed it, but they are grasping at straws; in a few years there won't be enough paper to feed it.