Imagining a world without paper

Imagining a world without paper

I came across an article from one of the most renowned experts in the printing industry — widely recognised as a guru and a mentor — just recently. In the article he imagines that an event has taken place which has removed all paper from the world — not just books, newspapers and magazines, but packaging, labels and so on. He invites us to imagine such a world and in the process makes a case for the importance of paper production and the valuable place that printing has in our world.

Here is the article.

Frank Romano imagines a world without paper. It is not pretty.

One dark night the planet earth passed through a cosmic storm. It was silent and non-violent. When the world awoke that morning, there was no paper.

I saw the result in the kitchen. The packaging around boxed products was gone and the contents were in a pile on the shelf. Labels were gone from cans and bottles. My travel card did not function and my wallet was lighter because only the plastic cards remained. All my cash was gone.

Newspaper stands were empty and magazine racks were blank.

Shopping was a challenge. Like the 1910s, one scooped flour, and sugar, and olives, from giant barrels into plastic bags. Those packaged foods that were not already in plastic, adopted the material immediately.

Within a week, the newspaper and magazine industries re-allocated their resources to broadcast, cable, and internet publishing. Offices had already transitioned to e-mail, , and PDF communication. The e-business card market blossomed. Cards existed in digital form and could be beamed or tapped to any other device. It was common to see people ‘toasting’ their mobiles like wine glasses.

Bus and other posters were instantly converted to flat screens and e-ink sheets. Digital signage was everywhere. All transportation ticketing became electronic. Postal personnel delivered only special containers. The recipients removed the contents and returned the container. Catalogues were gone and the volume of e-mail rose to entice buyers into stores. Restaurants used digital panels. Schools gave tablets to students in lieu of textbooks.

Sadly, in an instant, the printing industry was decimated. Printers who printed on plastics and fabrics and special materials prospered. Printed electronics advanced more rapidly as printing firms sought new areas of revenue. But 20 per cent of the economy had been based on making, fabricating, transporting, and storing paper in one form or another.

Overnight, world electrical use increased and more fossil fuels were burned to generate the power needed for all those electronic devices. As a result, air pollution increased and human illness was on the rise. Incorrectly discarded electronic devices and plastics also increased pollution, of groundwater and soil.

The electronic alternatives to paper seemed so right at the time. But then the bill came due and we realized that paper was not so bad after all. It could be re-cycled and re-used. It caused virtually no pollution. That storm took away more than our paper; it took away our lives.

This Feature appeared in the August 2014 issue of ProPrint Magazine

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