31 Ways to Reduce Paper Usage

Why should we care about our paper usage? For me the key points are that it is an expensive, impermanent storage medium that is made primarily out of those wondrous things we call trees.


Americans are the heaviest paper users in the world, with an estimated average yearly per capita consumption of paper products of 700 pounds per year.1 Even just office paper can be a very substantial expense on its own.2 Costs of hundreds to even thousands of dollars per year per person (or employee) are not rare.

I personally have used only a few hundred sheets of virgin paper in the last eight years. Most of which were printed at a local library and were university papers that were double-sided whenever I was allowed to. How did I do away with my paper usage to such a great extent? The tips below will show you how I did it, even though in that time I completed four university degrees.

Wondrous trees

During his excellent talk at TED, William McDonough challenges designers with the following ‘assignment’:

Design something that makes oxygen, sequesters carbon, fixes nitrogen, distills water, accrues solar energy as fuel, makes complex sugars and food, creates microclimates, changes colors with the seasons, and self-replicates.

Well, why don’t we knock that down and write on it?

If you ever begin to doubt how unbelievably wondrous trees are, read that above statement again. It is a sobering call to action even as our world’s ecosystems face tremendous and increasing overuse. By respecting and understanding (and mimicking as best we can) the beauty and spectacular capability of the living world, we can learn to live increasingly happy and high-quality lives in harmony with nature.

Why should I?

  1. Saves you money in the long run. Paper costs tend to add up over time. If you doubt this claim, try accounting for your home or office paper product usage over the course of a month period.
  2. The process of recycling paper requires energy and usually bleaching agents. Both bleach and energy production generally harm the environment.
  3. About 90% of paper comes from trees, the majority of which are not sustainably harvested.3 By reducing our paper use we can reduce our support for this generally non-renewable industry.

How can I do it?

  1. Don’t print this list. If you really want to print it, do it double-sided with small margins and small font. Copy and paste it into a word processor so that you can control exactly what gets printed.

In general

  1. Change your bills to ‘paperless’ and pay them online or by phone. Most companies will make this easy for you to do since an Email is a lot cheaper than postage. You can also set up automatic billing, which should be even lower stress (assuming that you can pay them) since it just automatically debits your bank account at billing time. Ask for paperless reports from credit cards and banks as well. Most banks offer this service through their websites or phone support.
  2. Save online receipts in a folder on your computer. How? In Windows you can take a screenshot by pressing the “Print Screen” key on your keyboard. Once you have taken the screenshot you can use ‘paste’ in an image editing program such as Paint, or a word processor such as Microsoft Word.  This can get a bit tiresome if the receipt is multiple pages long. An even better technique is to print to a file. There are many print-to-file techniques available, though they depend on your computer’s operating system and setup. Every operating system that I am aware of has one of these, it just sometimes takes a little bit of setting up. If you don’t know how to print to a file, try searching for “<your operating system name and version> print to file” on an Internet search engine such as Google. You can refine this search by putting in a filetype as well, such as pdf, rtf, png, etc. If you don’t feel your technical skills are up to the task, ask a computer-savvy friend or a kid.
  3. Try to end junk mail. Many companies have simple contact details for phone or internet. There are many tips for doing this around the Internet such as at EHow.
  4. Minimize your use of paper. Re-use one-sided paper for notes, sketches, rough work, etc. Use both sides of pieces of paper.
  5. Don’t use a bigger piece of paper than you need. If you only need half or a quarter of a page to write down a recipe or shopping list, then only use that amount.
  6. Use paper from recycling bins for notes, etc. Most people only print on one side, leaving a full side of high quality white paper. This saved me a lot of money in university. The library always had a lot of paper in the recycle bins beside the printers. I would just go in and take a stack every once in a while. The amount that people printed and sent straight into the recycle bins was just staggering.
  7. Use electronic storage rather than paper storage for material. Don’t print them unless you really have to. Electronic storage can be very reliable if it is set up with backups. How do you make automatically scheduled backups? For Windows I have used DirSyncPro which can be run using the Windows scheduler at specific times of the day/week/month. See the DirSyncPro FAQ for more info on how to set that up. There are also built-in backup utilities for versions of Mac OS X, Linux, and Windows that have been released in the last five to ten years. You can easily find out how to use these by searching online. Another alternative that I have been liking lately is cloud storage online. I use the free service offered by Google Docs for most of my document needs, so I never have to worry about hard drive failures.
  8. If you need to buy paper, buy recycled when you can. It isn’t perfect, but it is a step in the right direction.
  9. Be frugal about magazine subscriptions, newspapers etc. Many newspapers have online versions. Online magazine subscriptions are also available at places like Barnes & Noble.


  1. Think before you print. Do you really need to print it? Many people have bad habits of just clicking the print button whenever they want to read something. Especially in office settings this can be incredibly wasteful. If you computer screen isn’t nice enough to read things on, consider upgrading to a newer, higher quality one. Specifically, old CRT monitors have a flicker to them that was harder on eyes than modern LCD monitors. Reading on a screen isn’t perfect either, but it doesn’t waste paper needlessly.
  2. If you only need one page of a document, only print that. This is often very easy to do in the ‘print’ menu of whatever word processor (or Internet browser) you are using.
  3. When printing a web page, copy and paste the text into a word processor so that it is formatted correctly for printing. Printing webpages ‘as is’ often prints a lot of junk that you don’t want, perhaps also using up colored inks as well.
  4. Proofread your work carefully before printing it. Use the ‘print preview’ mode in your word processor / presentation software / spreadsheet software in order to make sure what you are printing is exactly what you want.
  5. You can print on both sides of the paper with most modern printers. This is often referred to as print ‘duplex’.
  6. Adjust margins on your documents. The smaller margin of .75 inch (1.90cm) is becoming more common.


  1. Electronic document collaboration is superior to paper document collaboration. Here at Vision of Earth we use Google Docs for all of our writing. It is a simple system that allows us to cooperatively edit documents, as well as track the changes made by each person. For more information on how we at collaborate, see our post on software tools that we use to collaborate across the world.
  2. It is possible to do effective editing and collaboration even using standard word processors. For instance, you can learn to use “track changes” in Microsoft Word, or Edit->Changes in OpenOffice Writer. This lets you put editing marks in documents, and also view the editing changes that have been made by other people.
  3. Use email (electronic mail) rather than paper mail when you can. Most businesses and even governments are in the process of transferring over to electronically available services. This will drastically reduce the costs of postal service as well.
  4. Use a USB stick, also known as a ‘thumb drive’, to move around or share electronic documents rather than printing them. Encourage people coming to meetings to bring their reports in electronic format, and for attendees to bring electronic storage of their own (or share via an Internet-based document storage). Many companies are utilizing an ‘intranet’ now, allowing them to securely distribute documents to company employees only.
  5. Use electronic fax services. There are a number of them available, some of which are even free for one page faxes such as fax zero. The quality can sometimes be a bit low with the free services, so it is recommended that you phone the fax receiver to make sure that they can read the sent document.
  6. Don’t place paper contacts on business cards (such as a postal mailing address). Only put email, and phone. This forces people to contact you through these electronic mediums.


  1. Use cloth napkins.
  2. Use rags instead of paper towels.
  3. Try to not use paper plates. Use durable washable ones if you need something for a BBQ. In terms of environmental impact the trend usually goes like this: Reusable plates are better than paper plates which are better than plastic plates.
  4. Use a handkerchief instead of kleenex.
  5. Use a white board for lists/notes/announcements.
  6. Buy bulk foods using your own reusable containers rather than buying supermarket boxed goods.
  1. The Daily Green. 15 Facts About the Paper Industry, Global Warming and the EnvironmentAnd What You Can Do About It. Accessed November 29th, 2010. []
  2. The Real Cost of Paper. DocStoc. 2001 RCC Consulting. Accessed November 29th, 2010. []
  3. Wikipedia: Paper recycling. Accessed November 29th, 2010. []

Ben Harack

I'm an aspiring omnologist who is fascinated by humanity's potential.

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