2 min read

The re-usable paper office

E-mail has made quite a difference

I have been writing about information technology for 29 years now, and from the very beginning people have been talking about the paperless office. Needless to say, it’s still not a reality.

In developed countries, paper use in the office has actually declined somewhat. E-mail has made quite a difference – even though some people still insist on printing out the e-mails they receive. But as developed countries use less paper, developing countries are using more as they gain more access to technology, according to Adela Goredema, a research scientist at the Xerox Research Centre of Canada (XRCC) in Mississauga, Ont.

Goredema is the project leader for XRCC’s research on reusable paper – paper that can be erased and reused 50 or more times.

This is technology that could make it practical to take the fairly sizeable number of office documents that are printed for short-term use and end up in the wastebasket or recycling bin within a week, and simply erase the information that is no longer needed and use the paper again.

It’s not commercial yet, and it’s hard to say when – or even if – it will be. Goredema showed a prototype to a few reporters during an open house at XRCC in mid-September.

While Xerox uses the term reusable paper, it’s about more than the paper, which in fact is ordinary glossy paper with a special coating added. This coating is made of a substance that changes colour when exposed to a combination of ultraviolet light and heat, and changes back again when heated.

The other ingredients are a printer that transfers an image to the paper using ultraviolet light instead of toner or ink, and a heating device for erasing the printouts you’re done with.

So far the system can only produce a monochrome document. Goredema says it remains readable for at least five days unless deliberately erased or exposed to heat, and probably for a good deal longer in ideal conditions. Xerox tests show the paper can be reprinted at least 50 times.

The cost/benefit analysis is a little vague yet. Adding the special coating to the paper adds something to the cost and something to the energy input needed to make it, but apparently little enough that when you take the reuse of paper into account it would be significantly cheaper.

Businesses probably won’t buy a separate printer to print reusable documents, but Goredema says it should be possible to build the technology into a conventional printer so it can print permanent and reusable documents from different paper trays based on one click in a print dialogue.

The limitation to monochrome – if not overcome, and we can’t say that’s impossible – will create some resistance. Even many documents that contain colour don’t really need it, but some people will be determined their web-page printouts must be in colour.

In the end, ironing the kinks out of the technology might be the easy part. The hard part will be getting people to use it. That’s about changing attitudes. That can be tough – but not impossible, as I’m reminded every time I visit a store.

Only a few years ago one checkout clerk insisted she couldn’t let us leave the store without placing the one item we purchased in a plastic bag. Now almost everyone asks if you need a bag. Things can change.