wasting bandwidth since 1999

PDF is Bad For the Environment

This month we’ve had a lot of talk about saving paper around here, and the fact that this is Earth Week was only a minor factor.

The catalyst came from one of our trainers who noticed all the paper wasted at her school and implemented a plan to use less at her school and recycle the money into technology purchases.

Her program has worked very well in that one location but it got me thinking about how and whether the concept could be spread, especially in the paper-hungry environment of the central office location in which I work.

My doubt really has nothing to do with being green or saving money since many people want to do both. Or at least say they want to.

However, less printing requires major alterations to the way people communicate, something that doesn’t seem to be happening very quickly around here despite years of trying.

And I blame PDF for that. Or at least it gets part of the blame.

Although Adobe has some wonderful examples of multimedia brochures and interactive forms done in their electronic printing format, that’s not the way most people use it.

No, most PDF files are not created to make them easy to read on the screen. Instead they are simply digital reproductions of documents that were designed to be printed in the first place.

So, instead of me printing the paperwork and distributing it to the masses, I convert it into a PDF file and post it on the web or send it in an email. Each recipient then downloads the document.

And prints it. Well, maybe not everyone but enough that my saving paper is pretty much offset by someone else using it.

Examples of this phenomena are not hard to find. As I poke around in offices and schools I see printers spitting out PDF documents, along with emails and web pages, all of which could be read on a screen, bookmarked or stored electronically, and recalled when needed.

Instead they go onto paper which is then stored in binders (we LOVE binders around here!) and manila folders for later use. Or for later disposal when the file cases get full and clean out time rolls around.

Ok, so maybe I’m exaggerating things again (who, me? :-) and it’s not entirely the fault of Adobe and PDF.

We can’t blame the technology when the larger problem is that we really have never done a good job of teaching people how to format material for the screen.

And we certainly need to do a lot more to help them understand how to use blogs, wikis, and all the other collaborative online tools to work on screen from start to finish.

I never bought into the idea of the paperless office that was pushed by computer manufacturers (and, strangely enough, by Xerox) in the 80’s.

But when I see all the printing generated around here, especially as people get ready for the opening of school training sessions and more in August and September, I just have to believe there’s a better way.


  1. John Hendron

    I think it takes a certain kind of person to work “electronically.”

    We have “printers” (people, not machines) where I work too. Some print long e-mails, for cryin’ out loud.

    People think I’m kidding when I suggest we stop buying printers.

    But what drives me even more insane–yes, insane–is people who e-mail Word documents.

    I love PDF compared to Word documents.

    They’ll type up a paragraph or two, and instead of copying/pasting that into an e-mail, it gets ATTACHED to an e-mail and sent. I have to wait while Word launches (I stay away as much as possible) and then when it finally does (slow beast it is), argh! 2 paragraphs?

    That should equal a demerit, or a loss of a sick day.

    Unfortunately, it takes time and more time to get used to electronic formats. They are evolving… print blogs or wikis? Not often… And would I ever print a Google Doc? Hardly ever.

  2. Dave

    When I was trying to write an article about native/immigrant, I came across a definition I liked: natives start with an all-digital process and incorporate analog processes as necessary. For example, I’ll write my outline and document drafts in Word, email them back and forth with others, etc, but if we’re meeting in a conference room without a projector, I’ll print a few copies.

    An immigrant starts with an all analog process and incorporates digital processes as necessary. For example, there’s no type-writers here, so they have to use the computer to make documents, but all the other steps: sharing, proofreading, making changes, etc are done with printouts. They look for help in books or from the person in the next office instead of online documentation or emailing help desk.

    That said, I think saving paper is good but surrounded by extra hype. All paper in the US comes from trees on tree farms intended for making paper. More than half of all paper is recycled (even though it’s not inherently profitable to do so). And even though paper makes up the largest percentage of landfill waste, it also biodegrades faster than just about anything else. The savings from using less paper would be very very slim – maybe each person would use $10 less paper a year? Which would probably be offset by tech training/support costs? I know every little bit helps, I switched from daily Styrofoam coffee cups to a insulated mug…but if people have to make major changes to their routine I don’t think saving a little paper can justify it.

  3. Tim

    John: Word attachments drive me nuts as well, especially since we use Outlook around here and people have all the formatting tools to use there.

    The worst was when our new Assistant Superintendent decided to write a weekly message to the masses and did it as a Word attachment. We managed to talk him out it after a few weeks but I’m still badgering him to turn it into a blog.

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