How to manage business printing with minimal environmental impact

For as long as computers have existed, people have discussed the prospect of a paperless office. However, decades later, the reality of this happening remains a pipe dream for many businesses.

It’s fair to say that many firms, especially small start-ups, are far less reliant on paper than they once were. With most faxes and letters replaced with emails and paper invoices (and checks) replaced with electronic equivalents, there’s undoubtedly less need for paper. Printers and reams of paper – both plain and letterhead – were once near the top of every new business’ shopping list, and that’s no longer the case.

However, going truly paperless is still a far-off prospect, especially for more established and traditional businesses. A lot of the time, this is due to long-standing ways of working, and a need for legal compliance. One study in 2016 demonstrated that 80% of UK businesses print documents merely so they can be signed. In the public sector and in financial services, this figure goes up to 90%.

With all of this in mind, this article considers some strategies for businesses who want to minimise the environmental impact of their printing practices. This, in turn, can save money too. First, the article looks at ways to move closer to the “paperless office” utopia by actually printing less; then, it considers ways to reduce the environmental impact of any printing that truly cannot be avoided.

How to Print Less

As mentioned above, a lot of unnecessary printing in many businesses is due to documents being printed merely so people can sign them. However, there are numerous ways to electronically sign documents nowadays and, often, these methods are legally compliant. The UK government even provides official advice for the use of electronic signing systems.

So, by implementing an electronic signature system, companies can eliminate a significant amount of paper use, and the subsequent need to store it. Furthermore, electronic signing can happen online, reducing the need for people to travel to sign documents or to wait for them to arrive by post. This all has further positive knock-on effects on the environment.

Another way businesses waste a lot of paper is in the form of “handouts” for meetings or training sessions. Often, nobody ever looks at these again after the meeting. Not only does this make for waste that’s bad for the environment, it also creates a privacy issue, as companies can never be sure how each copy of the handout was disposed of – raising the prospect of commercially sensitive information being left in public or unshredded in recycling bins.

It’s easy to reduce the paper used for this purpose. With many people now taking laptops and tablets into meetings, it’s easy to distribute documents in electronic form before, during or after a meeting. If paper copies are absolutely essential, companies can consider if it’s really necessary to have a copy for every delegate.

While on the subject of tablet computers, it’s worth considering other ways in which the use of these in a business environment can save on paper use. It’s easy to read anything from emails to books and magazines on an iPad or similar device. In many ways, the experience is superior, with the ability to bookmark information and highlight text electronically. Businesses that circulate a lot of documents could find that rolling out such devices pays for itself in terms of reduced paper and printing costs.

Unavoidable Printing

In most businesses, there’s an unavoidable need to print out at least some information so this next section considers ways to do this is the greenest way possible.

1. Avoiding printing everything “in-house”

Companies with occasional requirements for things like brochures, leaflets and mail-outs can often save time and money by outsourcing the printing to a company dedicated to such work. Such companies are typically experts in printing (which can save the paper used in failed print runs and test prints!) Furthermore, by choosing a company that uses carbon neutral shipping methods and printing processes, businesses can ensure the minimal environmental impact from their major print runs.

2. Reducing the number of printers

While it may seem convenient to scatter an office with printers, it’s terrible for the environment. Not only does this strategy mean there’s more equipment out there, it also means more consumables such as toner cartridges.

A better strategy is for companies to use a single, well-specified device for all office printing. Photocopiers that allow for direct printing are an option here.

3. Using a duplex feature

Even relatively low-end inkjet printers often provide an automatic duplex feature that allows for double-sided printing. With suitable documents, this means companies can use half as much paper. IT departments can set printers up so they use duplex printing by default to enforce this behaviour, giving staff the ability to override it if need be.

4. Using an economy setting

Many printers include a “draft” or “economy” mode, usually accessed via the printer’s settings. Again, the IT department can make this the default option for every printout. This setting usually uses considerably less ink or toner. In many cases, the print quality achieved via an economy mode is still perfectly adequate. Staff who require better quality printing for presentation purposes need only to change the setting.

5. Establishing good recycling practices

Printing inevitably produces a large quantity of recyclable material. Not only is there plenty of paper – both from documents that have been read and from unnecessary printouts – there’s also the toner or inkjet cartridges.

These cartridges have an inherent value; some people will even buy depleted cartridges via eBay, in order to refill (and sometimes resell) them. As such, there’s always something a company can do with finished cartridges – at the very least, they can send them to a company that recycles them.

Obviously, the option also exists to save money by using refilled and recycled cartridges. This is an individual company decision but, unsurprisingly, it’s common to find that manufacturers don’t encourage the use of unofficial cartridges.

Going back to the paper itself, staff will be more inclined to recycle if the facilities are there to provide for it. As such, easily accessible recycling bins are important, as is a company culture that encourages recycling.

6. Avoid unnecessary use of colour

Sometimes, it’s really not necessary to print documents in colour, especially if they’re a work in progress in draft form. Companies that encourage staff to only print in colour when absolutely necessary will only deplete their monochrome cartridges quickly, rather than a whole set of colour cartridges.

7. Discourage printing in general

The best step of all is to work towards a culture where printing is the exception and not the rule. Plenty of people are accustomed to printing documents without giving it a second thought – perhaps printing something merely to read it in comfort. Staff with alternatives, such as access to tablet devices, aware that the business is seeking to work in a greener way, will print less – and this soon becomes a habit.

Despite being discussed for decades, the truly paperless office still seems like a futuristic utopia. However, it’s still realistic to aim to vastly reduce the amount of printing in every modern company.