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The problem of paper

Why professors and students should recommit to going digital

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Winter is coming, and we’re barreling through midterms. Loose-leaf paper handouts are on the rise. It’s like the university’s own special brand of snow, and as the quarter deepens, the blizzards of loose-leaf paper just seem to intensify. They clog backpacks and binders, get crunched and bent and lost, and I’m always left wondering why all of this content couldn’t have been on Canvas.

Canvas eliminates the need to wait by a copier for twenty, thirty, a hundred, or more copies of a document. It eliminates class time wasted by mass distribution of materials that creates either a disorderly effort to pass a stack of papers around the room or a student stampede to grab one from the pile arranged at the front. And it eliminates that awkward moment when you realize you’re just one or two copies short, and some students are now missing materials.

“I prefer to use digital communication whenever possible because I am able to have access to it where I am, whenever I need it,” ASUW President Kelty Pierce said in an email. “It’s easier for me to keep track of information, search for past communications/documents, and it’s a living document (meaning it can be changed and edited easier).”

Professors and class logistics aside, paper consumption is closely tied to sustainability. According to the EPA, paper and paperboard comprised 26.6% of the 258 million tons of municipal solid waste generated by Americans in 2014. That’s about 68.6 million tons of paper materials. About 19.4 million tons, or 28.4%, of paper and paperboard ended up in landfills in 2014, with the rest being recycled, composted, or combusted with energy recovery.

“Paper use does affect sustainability in many ways,” Katy Folk-Way, director of UW’s Creative Communications (C2), wrote in an email. “Working together to reduce what goes into landfill is important. UW Recycling has done a good job getting paper into recycling bins rather than waste containers, so the paper can be made into other paper products.”

In addition to UW Recycling’s efforts, other university entities are also working towards increasing sustainability through paper reduction.

“In 2009, the UW Paper Conservation Committee was created with co-leaders from UW Environmental Sustainability and Stewardship (ESS) team and C2; it included members from the UW community,” Folk-Way said. “This team began to measure and communicate the importance of reducing paper use when appropriate, resetting equipment to default to double-sided printing and recycling paper when it is no longer needed.”

Paper used to be a precious commodity. Typically, only the rich owned books and in fact, it was once the standard to display books — particularly illuminated manuscripts — face out rather than spine to spine in order to advertise wealth. Starting with the advent of the printing press, paper became progressively cheaper. Though this had an incalculably positive impact on learning, education, and knowledge diffusion, higher paper consumption has also correlated with higher waste, especially since the mechanization of wood harvesting. 

Happily, we now have an alternative that furthers the ability to spread and share knowledge with more people for more purposes more often. 

“Our world is changing, the users are changing,” Folk-Way said. “As a community, we need to continually turn to more sustainable ways to educate and inform, using more environmentally sustainable paper options, or go paperless options when appropriate.”

Pierce concurs, and in addition to being more sustainable, notes that digital materials are beneficial to students who utilize distance learning.

“There may be times where paper is appropriate, but it should be used as a supplemental resource, not as the main resource,” Pierce said.

There are few things more annoying than endless single sheets of paper. It’s time to cut short the blizzard and go digital. 

Reach writer Marissa Gaston at

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