Is the Shift to Paperless Hurting the Paper Industry?

Brittany Blackman
Jun 14, 2022

People are shifting towards different habits faster than the seasons change. But the granddaddy of all of the massive shifts that have happened over the last two decades is the shift to paperless living. Paperless living means no mailed bank statements, no receipts, and even digital planners, to name a few. So what does this mean for the paper industry?

Pandemic Bolstered Shift

There is an abundance of reasons for this shift, but the pandemic accelerated it. The more minor things like wedding invitations are not only going digital but eliminated in full due to thousands of wedding cancellations due to restrictions in 2020 and 2021. The average cost of a wedding in a pandemic society is $19,000, according to results from a recent study conducted by The Knot. This is a $9,000 drop from the average cost in 2019, which was around $28,000.

The Knot’s study, which surveyed over 7,600 U.S. couples who had initially set their wedding date for 2020, also found that almost half of couples who planned to wed in 2020 decided to have postponed celebrations back in 2021. That’s a lot of potential paper business in the gutter.

Offices have also been eliminating paper. Besides the shift to remote working, many offices are rethinking their paper usage. As Forbes notes, paper takes up costly real estate. A nine-square-foot filing cabinet can hold approximately 10,000 documents, equal to roughly the same amount that a typical office worker uses every year. Paper also grows by about 22% each year for an average business, so a company’s paper usage doubles within four years.

The standard filing cabinet also costs between $1,500 and $2,100 a year to maintain, according to Digiscribe. Now imagine an office of 200 people. Soon it becomes easy to accumulate boxes, cabinets, and sometimes rooms full of paper that eventually becomes out of hand. With this said, many offices have started cutting corners. 

For example, paper-based forms, contracts, orders, etc., can typically be replaced with PDF documents that can be signed with easy-to-use and legally binding e-signature technology. And there are a lot of new e-sign companies. The transition will reduce paper usage and bolster business processes, from distribution to partners, customers, and employees for signatures to more easily locating files.

The same sentiment can be said about the education sector, another major paper consumer until it shifted to home teaching. Many of the students’ assignments are done digitally since coming off months of remote learning. 

According to Record Nations, schools in the United States consume about 36 billion sheets of paper a year before Covid. 

According to Record Nations, the average U.S. high school uses an estimated 2,000 sheets of paper a day in a typical calendar year. According to the Sierra Club, a grassroots environmental organization in the United States, one tree, on average, produces around 10,000 sheets of paper. 

This brings us to the next point of contention for the paper industry: the sustainability movement. 

Sustainability Without Paper

According to Environmental Legal, toxic chemicals like carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, ammonia, nitrogen oxide, and mercury are emitted during paper manufacturing, contributing to the ongoing climate crisis the globe is facing. 

Additionally, according to a study by Unilever, a third of all global consumers are now choosing to buy from brands they believe are doing social or environmental good. Another study by Cone Communications found that 87% of people say they are more likely to purchase products from companies that support the issues they believe in. In comparison, 76% say they will refuse to buy from companies on the wrong side of issues that conflict with their values. And sustainability is becoming more of a critical factor in consumers’ decision-making process as the years pass. 

According to The World Counts, 420 million tons of paper corresponds to two pieces of paper for everyone on Earth every hour. Demand for paper is expected to double between 2005 and 2030. Society isn’t as paperless as one may think. The site also has a live counter of how many tons of paper are produced in the world so far in 2022, and it’s growing at a staggering rate. At the time of publication, 182,243,075 tons of paper have been produced this year. 

The World Counts also found that approximately 26% of waste dumped in landfill sites is discarded paper and paperboard. In addition, when paper rots, it creates methane gas, which is 25 times as toxic as carbon dioxide.

In response to this, paper companies are attempting to shift to producing other types of cellulose-based products like tissues or toilet paper. Both products have recently seen an unprecedented increase in demand at the beginning of the pandemic but are expected to decline as a society collectively becomes more environmentally aware. 

Generally speaking, the pulp industry has a huge environmental impact that would be good to reduce, primarily associated with the consumption of white paper used in photocopiers and printers. At the same time, other products such as cardboard are increasingly recycled. 

Other Threats to the Industry

Despite sustainability woes and the massive shift to e-documents, the paper industry is still on an uptick. However, new innovation is on track to disrupt the industry even further. Bahrain is replacing its traditional paper timetables with solar-powered e-paper bus stop displays to provide live, accurate bus arrival/departure times and other important information to travelers at the busiest stops in its capital city of Manama. The bus stops use brand new tech from e-paper specialist Papercast, which works in partnership with integrated traffic and transport systems provider Spark City. It is part of a more significant national strategy to improve public transport and transform mobility for all users and address some environmental concerns.

Is the Paper Industry Hurting?

All in all, the paper industry is still doing just fine. The pulp and paper industry has been thriving and is on track to continue throughout 2022. However, leaders in the industry must continually innovate to meet the changing demands, whether environmental demands or otherwise. For now, many countries will try to offset this production. The goal of collecting and recycling 55% of all plastic packages has been set by the European Union and is expected to be reached by 2030.

Photo by Christa Dodooon Unsplash

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