Chemists Create Re-writable Paper – Folly or Major Paperless Innovation for the Future?
Given Poplar Solutions’ mission to improve laboratory productivity and efficiency by automating processes and reduce the environmental impact of business by eliminating paper-based processes (through our Labcore software), I am interested in the best practices and technological innovations that can help to achieve this. One recent technological innovation which caught my eye in a December issue ofGizmag, as something with the potential to create a major change, is one where Chemists at the University of California, Riverside have created rewritable paper that can be printed on and erased many times over.
If you are someone like me who is a bit of a techno geek, you probably get excited when you read about new innovations like this and think that it’s super smart technology which will help to save the planet. Then, like me, after I had some time to think about it and read a couple of the comments that people shared at the end of this article, you come back down to earth and ask, “how are we going to actually use this innovation?” and, “is this a brilliant idea which will help us to reduce our consumption of paper and save the earth or is it just folly?”
I think it is a good idea. Why is it a good idea? First consider pulp and paper consumption is increasing. WWF Global estimates the world consumes around 400 million tons per year and rising, every year to a projected 500 million by 2020. Given the costs for businesses who are reliant on paper and the negative effects on earth’s forests, climate and water, we should be looking for ways to reduce or control consumption of paper so that it can be sustainable and renewable resource in the future. I will outline some of the impacts on the earth as well as the high costs businesses, and in particular laboratories, have in supporting paper based processes in a follow up blog post.
I would be interested to hear feedback from others relating to the uses and challenges of utilizing rewritable paper. I am particularly interested in your thoughts relating to a couple of the comments. One of the commentators contends that paper is needed because, in his opinion, “it is more permanent than any electronic equivalent” and he seems concerned that changes in work processes will be difficult as the rewritable paper will need to be collected in order to go through another cycle, stating, “I can just imagine the nonsense of being told on receipt of some documents to keep them pristine and then having someone trying to collect it all.” Another commentator shares that “dumping paper in landfills may seem wasteful, but it has a practical purpose – carbon sequestration.” He believes “we are putting “oil” back into the ground instead of burning it into the atmosphere.
I am still considering the impact of this discovery and believe that there are important applications especially if the chemists who developed it can increase the number of cycles you can reprint on the paper before its useful life is used, from the current 20 cycles to the goal of 100. According to the author of the Gizmag article, Colin Jeffrey, “The University of California Research team is also investigating methods to lengthen the time that the text remains legible to broaden the potential fields of use for the technology.” So it has a long way to go, but think about the amount of paper we throw away every day which gets incinerated or end up in our overloaded landfills for carbon sequestration. I am not naive enough to think that all paper will go to this rewritable format and be reused and recycled, but if a substantial percentage of paper can be used in this way there will be less pressure to meet the ever increasing need for paper which means a more sustainable future for the industry, and for the earth and its threatened biosystems.
There are many challenges which exist in introducing new technology like rewritable paper into the marketplace and to change the behaviors of people who are very set in their ways and processes (paper-centric processes). But change is necessary, especially when not changing threatens to cause great harm to the earth and our environment. Just as we need to move away from our reliance on carbon based fuels, we need to find ways to reduce our reliance on paper. I look around my own office and house as well as the laboratories I visit and see lots of paper waste and overuse of this resource.
The benefits of moving to a computerized, electronic records systems and away from paper are well documented. Leveraging electronic workflow and automation, to move information quickly from person to person and assemble and reassemble data and documents in many ways multiple times with a full audit trail and archive it in an easily searchable and retrievable manner, makes paper-based systems antiquated and costly. Just read our case study from DHL Analytical and listen to the related video testimonials to see the benefits of moving away from paper. That said paper will always be needed. Innovations like rewritable paper created by Chemists at the University of California allows us to rethink how we use it and to control when it is ready to be returned to the ground as part of carbon sequestration.