Sustainable Printing: The Environmental Impact of Your Printer

Despite the friction-free transmission of documents that the web has brought us, and with the ubiquity of PDF files, the rise of e-book readers and perhaps an Apple iPad (s aapl), we’re still a long way from the utopian vision of a paperless office.

Printing is still an important part of every web worker’s workflow, and though it’s quite arcane, much of our communication and documentation is still conducted via a paper trail. Not only does this leave piles of paper to manage, there’s the economic cost of all of that ink and paper and, importantly, there’s also an environmental cost involved with printing that we all bear as a society.

In a recent issue of Wired UK, Thomas Counsell from the University of Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing speculated that up to two percent of greenhouse gases are a result of paper consumption, largely driven by the production and disposal of new and used printed paper.

Counsell’s research is focused on technologies that use a combination of ultrasound and chemical solvents to remove toner from printed documents, enabling paper to reused. Though Counsell’s research is still very much in the labs and somewhat fantastical, there are alternatives, available today, that can help us make environmental and financial judgments about the paper and ink that we use.

The Paper-Less Alliance‘s web site not only provides handy advice on how to reduce paper consumption, but also provides free software, in collaboration with PaperCut, to help individuals and companies visualize their paper consumption in terms of a carbon footprint, trees, energy use and financial impact.

GreenPrint offers an inexpensive software solution that adds a new printer profile to Macs and PCs. As documents are sent to the “virtual” GreenPrint printer, they’re analyzed, and attention is drawn to wasteful or unnecessary areas, which users can then choose to remove from the final printout.

For example, many documents often have a page with just a few words or lines on the last page; GreenPrint automates the discovery of such inefficiencies.

Adobe’s Tools for Sustainable Design (s adbe) are yet to be released, but were previewed by Adobe’s CTO, Kevin Lynch last Spring at ETech 2009. Lynch demonstrated some great demos, including:

  • optimizing a box pattern to use less paper
  • tools that show the toxicity and chemical impact of various ink colors
  • embedded guidelines from organizations such as Greenpeace
  • calculating the number of trees or soy plants required for a print job
  • suggesting digital rather than hard copy outputs

More recently, designer Matthew Robinson conducted a somewhat unscientific project entitled “Measuring Type,” which explored how much ink commonly utilized typefaces tended to use. Robinson discovered that Garamond had the highest ink efficiency.

Though I tend not to print much anyway, preferring the flexibility of digital documents, these four initiatives have forced me to understand the true cost of printing and show that software can help us make value judgments about environmental issues.

A year ago we saw controversy and ridicule around one researcher’s carbon calculation of a Google search (s goog), yet our various applications and tools still aren’t doing a great job of reporting their environmental impact to users. As we see software emerge to help us understand the environmental impact of printing, I hope we’ll start to see other categories of software and hardware reveal their environmental impact and cost.

Coincidentally, the Daily Beast just published a great article on the advantages and disadvantages of going paper-free, entitled “My Paperless Life.”

Are you mindful of the environmental impact of your printing? Which strategies do you employ to reduce waste?