If we’re meant to be digital natives, why is more paper still being used?

When was the last time you paid for something in cash, sent a letter or received a physical phone or credit card bill?

We’re increasingly becoming a country where paper isn’t our primary form of communication, either for reading or writing.

But does this mean we’re on the way to a paperless society or is it just a prediction always 20 years away?

In 2019, we rely on contactless payments, paperless billing and text message reminders to get us to doctor’s appointments, to pay for shopping, and to settle our debts.

The number of transactions paid for in cash has halved in the last decade, according to data collated by consumer association Which?.

Two in every three purchases are made using credit or debit cards, rather than banknotes. At the same time, the number of cash withdrawals from ATMs has dropped.

This move away from paper in the UK is helped by the Bank Of England, even for those using cash, with new UK banknotes no longer being made of paper.

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Since 2016, £5 and £10 notes have been made of polymer, with £20 notes to follow in 2020 and £50 notes in 2021.

It all adds up to a bigger picture: we’re moving everything to digital and moving away from paper.

In large part, this is due to the rise of technology that helps make transactions easier but it’s also driven by a renewed environmental awareness of the impact of our reliance on paper.

‘The impetus to go paperless is to save the planet,’ says Jenny Mitcham, head of good practice and standards at the Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC).

But advocates for continued paper-use see it as a renewable resource:

‘It’s not a trite phrase to say paper grows on trees,’ says Andrew Large, director-general of the Confederation Of Paper Industries, ‘because it does.’

Despite this ‘renewability’, some people see the deforestation required to supply the paper industry and the emissions in its production as a price not worth paying, particularly in Europe.

The number of companies, employees and mills in operation around Europe has dropped by around a third since 2000, according to the Confederation of European Paper Industries.

But global paper and paperboard industry increased year-on-year, with declines in newsprint, printing and writing paper offset elsewhere.

Globally, the industry is growing at 1% per year – a slower rate than before the 2007-8 financial crash, but an increase nonetheless.

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Just because you’ve got a paper-free bank statement doesn’t mean your online order isn’t packaged in card and paper.

The Environmental Paper Network says that, while packaging is the most frequent use of paper, it is sanitary paper – tissues and toilet roll – showing the biggest growth.

‘There has obviously been a change,’ says Large.

‘People are consuming information differently, and the move online does mean that sales of things like newsprint and graphic papers have fallen.

‘Sales of packaging papers – things like corrugated cardboard – have gone up, because they’re used as the packaging for all your deliveries from online retailers,’ says Large.

‘It’s been a case of swings and roundabouts. Though one element of the industry has been declining, another is rising.’

At the same time, some things aren’t able to be easily digitised.

Graph showing how paper is used
Paper is primarily used for packaging (Source: environmentalpaper.org )

While our consumer rights are maintained just as well if we want to return an item bought at a shop using an emailed receipt rather than a paper one, we still carry physical passports and are asked for paperwork to prove our address when starting new jobs and opening bank accounts.

In some countries, physical birth certificates are carefully treasured documents because they’re often the only official record of a person’s existence,

Without one, it’s impossible to get other documents like passports.

As a result, it’s vital that the drive to a paperless society carefully considers the impacts of abolishing physical documentation.

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‘It’s not the sort of thing you should go into without a lot of thought,’ says Mitcham.

‘We see examples of people and companies going paperless and doing their work through digital processes alone and it can lead to some problems.’

The notion of self-sovereign identity, where paper passports and ID cards are shunned in favour of a single digital document, could potentially face the pitfalls that Mitcham highlights.

One major concern for those digitising documents is futureproofing the format they choose.

The DPC develop an annual ‘Bit List’ of endangered technology – and amongst them are key file formats in wide use today.

It’s released on World Digital Preservation Day on 7 November this year.

In the list, Facebook posts, Slack channels, Twitter and WhatsApp messages are all seen as ‘vulnerable’, with ‘childhood photographs and videos’ and ‘wedding photos and movies’ stored digitally as critically endangered.

‘There’s always a temptation to think about the here and now and the problem they want to solve right away,’ says Mitcham.

‘People also have too much faith in the digital services they use – file formats only last a certain amount of time.’

As a result, the paperless future may still be a distant – or non-existent – dream.

‘I don’t think we’ll go totally paperless,’ says Mitcham.

‘I haven’t. I like printing things out and scribbling on them. I can’t shake that habit.’

Some companies are trying to build a halfway house between the physical and digital. reMarkable is a tablet computer that feels like paper, and can be scribbled on and handwriting digitised into text.

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Moleskine, the manufacturer of notebooks which could lose out massively if we abandon paper, has its own transitional system that allows physical sketches to be easily digitised.

Looking further ahead, the potential of ‘miracle material’ graphene to create thin, strong digital displays and packaging could see a revolution in how we use paper.

It is still speculative but digital paper could be written on, instantly upload to the cloud for reference then wipe itself clean. Handwriting recognition has been recorded as high as 99.73% accurate but there is still a long way to go.

With packaging, a concrete-strength paper-thin material could wrap your item then, when it has been sent, smartly shrink before wrapping around the next item it sends.

We are not close to those solutions yet but the continued growth of the internet of things, AI and renewable products show clear direction.

In the shorter term, even the prime minister’s team know using paper will lose you votes.

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Boris Johnson had a single-use coffee cup snatched away from him earlier this year at the Conservative party conference because of the planet-destroying optics it may have had.

We’re seeing a shift away from coffee served in paper/plastic cups in shops towards reusable, refillable flasks.

In the Houses Of Parliament alone, the number of single-use cups required in a month has fallen from 58,000-a-month to 15,000 in a year.

But some argue that people vigorously pursuing the paperless future may be misguided.

‘Paper and its products are completely renewable,’ says Andrew Large.

‘It’s absolutely right we move to a more sustainable, circular economy, and we think cellulose fibre-based materials can play a part in that.’

And the legions of cash-free shops and restaurants popping up in cities around the world may be beneficial in one way, but they’re problematic in another.

Nearly half of Britons would struggle in a cashless society, says Which?.

But it’s not just about cash itself, which is set to become paperless itself.

Vouchers and coupons are often physical items rather than digitally delivered.

For digital coupons, users require high-end smartphones to run apps or always-on internet connections – luxuries some people cannot afford.

And this runs true for the news (tablets/smartphones are still expensive), books (second-hand books are much cheaper than the Kindle version) and other examples of the so-called ‘digital divide’.

The fear among those who have carefully considered the impact of paperless societies is that we consider the race to remove physical items as a zero-sum game.

‘You can digitise anything and everything, and that’s fine, but the question would be, do you throw away the original?’ asks Mitcham.

‘For some things that aren’t important, digitise it and throw away the original if you have a suitable plan to preserve the digital copy you’ve created.

‘For other things you wouldn’t throw out the original because it has a value to it.’

For many, there’s a more nostalgic desire to keep paper in our lives.

The smell and touch of a physical book or magazine are envied by some people more than their pixel-based equivalents.

That said, research on young people is split between them preferring to read on screens or craving the feel of paper. 

But the emotional resonance of a hand-written note is being used by those keen to add a personal touch and a real connection.

Calligrapher Alice Gabb has seen her business grow exponentially over the last few years because customers are keen to capture that authenticity of real letter writing.

It’s those qualities that the paper industry is so keen to trumpet.

In 2015, the US paper industry invested in a television ad campaign broadcast on primetime television programmes including Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory reminding people that paper has been with us almost forever.

The war on plastic use hasn’t been repeated to the same scale with a ‘war against paper’, despite it reportedly accounting for 1% of CO2 emissions globally.

But paper use has quadrupled over the last 50 years and is still growing year-on-year, with over half of the 400 million tonnes produced used on wrapping and packaging.

Until we stop ordering goods online or an alternative to paper wrapping is found, no matter how many cashless shops pop up or digital statements are sent, a paperless society is still a long way off.

The Future Of Everything

Future Of Everything

This piece is part of Metro.co.uk’s series The Future Of Everything.

From OBEs to CEOs, professors to futurologists, economists to social theorists, politicians to multi-award winning academics, we think we’ve got the future covered, away from the doom-mongering or easy Minority Report references.

Every week – new pieces every Wednesday morning – we’re explaining what’s likely (or not likely) to happen.

Talk to us using the hashtag #futureofeverything  If you think you can predict the future better than we can or you think there’s something we should cover we might have missed, get in touch: [email protected] or [email protected]

Read every Future Of Everything story so far

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