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RISI-Series: ICT – Killing paper off with a greener image? Part III

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Issue date: 
Jun. 14, 2010
Publisher Name: 
Mark Rushton
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LONDON, Jun. 14, 2010 (RISI) - The debate rages on. Clearly the threat from ICT has struck a nerve with those of you in the paper industry. Part I and Part II of the series have elicited a lot more contributions from industry professionals, particularly those at the sharp end trying to change the perception of paper products, while at the same time trying to shift more tons to an ill informed public.

Save the environment - "Do Not Mail"

Charlie Gross, from Ris Paper in the US says that despite being in the business since 1974, he is concerned that the pulp and paper industry has never been in dialogue or discussion on the environment with the public. Gross says: "The ICT industry however, has been connecting with the public in every possible way. Our children and grandchildren are often taught a one sided view on the environment; often starting in grade school. The paper industry has sat on the sidelines for too many years. Our not being a part of the dialog has resulted in the public believing the forests are shrinking and that discarded mail is a major component of landfills."

Gross warns that in the near future there could be a major event, and even a "point of no return" if the misconceptions of the industry are not firmly addressed. He says: "Throw in concerns about air and water quality and many folks begin to believe paper, and therefore print, is bad for the environment. I will not be surprised if there is a "Do Not Mail" ballot initiative in California in the near future. If that happens, many in our industry will ask, "Why did they do that? They should know better." In fact, since we have been absent from almost all dialog with the public no one in our industry should be surprised."

Gross is of the opinion that if the industry enters into dialogue, it might be able to at least survive. He concludes: "I am a strong believer in the power of the marketplace. The marketplace almost always gets it right, over a period of time. The market place will "get it right" concerning paper, print, electronic and other forms of communication, if we become part of the public dialog. If not, the market place will make decisions based on incomplete information. In that case we lose big."

A gut wrenching can of worms?

Also in the US, Neil McCubbin, consultant to the paper industry is perhaps less optimistic, and reckons the debate between ICT and paper is one which is akin to a can of worms, especially when opened. McCubbin believes it will be a complex challenge to prove which one is more environmentally friendly from both industries and states: "I am sure that the companies saying "Save a tree, do not print this Email" will be unable to support their statements scientifically. However, we would be equally hard pressed to prove the converse. The ecological impact of electronic communications versus paper depends so much on how each is used in individual cases."

McCubbin continues: "However, the combination of convenience and speed is bound to result in increasing replacement of paper by electronic means and reading on the computer screen for the foreseeable future. The iPad and similar products just make this easier, and we (the paper industry) have a problem there. While some PR effort to slow the trend away from paper for communications is probably worth while, I suggest that the industry should focus on its strengths, paper packaging replacing plastic, and the increase of single use products such as coffee cups from drive in fast food restaurants and tissue products.

"All this means gut-wrenching change for the pulp and paper industry," concludes McCubbin, "But I fear that we cannot avoid it."

Getting to the nub of the problem

Bob Latham, director of sustainability in Europe for merchanting giant PaperlynX also believes that there have been failures on the part of the paper industry, mainly in the area of proving sustainability in a measurable fashion. Latham says: "We must understand that there are now many different organizations in existence whose raison d'être ( and funding) is inextricably bound up in the demise of the paper industry. These fall into four main categories:

a) Radical ngo's ( not all ngo's) who have an anti progress/anti business orientation

b) Business process automation suppliers ( software, hardware and distributors)

c) E-reader/screen based publishing supply chain

d) Pressure groups who peddle so -called " footprint calculators" that seek to quantify the eco-impact of a tonne of paper in terms of "x" trees, "y" liters of water" and "z" fossil fuel/carbon emissions.

Latham believes the industry must face these challenges head on, from questioning the empirical status of footprint calculators, to changing the public's perception that the harvesting of a tree for paper, is no different to harvesting "potatoes for chips (French fries)".

Computers - should be banned for the young

Meanwhile, some interesting research has taken place by psychologists recently on the harm computers could be doing to young and underdeveloped brains. Dr Aric Sigman, a psychologist in the UK, says that ICT type equipment is very bad for attention span, and is advocating a total ban on them until at least the age of nine. Sigman says: "The big problems we are seeing now with children who do not read, or who find it difficult to pay attention to the teacher, or to communicate, are down to attention damage that we are finding in all age groups."

Clearly, the ICT/paper debate is an entertaining one, and will continue to rage on until we finally either see the sustainability message finally get out into the public space, or not. But be sure we will be there following progress all the way.


Extpub | by Dr. Radut