An Unlikely Bipartisan Effort Taking Place In The New York State Capitol: Reducing Paper Waste


mountain-of-paperwork-300x300New York State legislators are trying to get rid of archaic language in their state’s constitution that requires they receive all proposed legislation in hard copy, the New York Times reported on Sunday. Legislators would instead rely, as many already do, on tablets and electronic means of reading the bills before them.

In an average two year legislative session, the New York legislature prints 19 million pages of text — at a cost of $325,000 for the paper and ink. But, despite bipartisan support for repealing the requirement, legislators can only change it by convincing voters to approve removing the related language from the state’s constitution. If they succeed, they will catch up with a majority of states that have shifted toward more virtual legislating:

More than half of the country’s state legislatures have taken steps to go paperless or reduce paper use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In the Hawaii Senate, where the paper consumption in an annual session once equaled about a thousand mature trees, the chamber has reduced its use of paper by 85 percent since 2007. And at least 16 states have given iPads or other tablets to all or some of their legislators, according to the legislature association.

Still, American government has a voracious appetite for paper. Local, state and federal offices used 122 billion sheets of paper in 2011, an amount equal to roughly 400 sheets for every person in the United States, according to InfoTrends, a research and consulting firm that specializes in digital imaging and document management.

There is more to the value of cutting back on printing than cost reduction; paper use has major environmental impacts. It’s not just the paper plantations themselves. Though those do create a monoculture that threatens surrounding ecosystems, the other big environmental cost of paper use is in the production. Producing paper is energy-intensive and a significant source of carbon pollution. In 2011, manufacturing accounted for more than a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and the paper and pulp industry made up 11 percent of manufacturing energy use, according to a recent report by World Resources Institute. Worldwide, the pulp and paper industry contributes around 10 percent of carbon emissions. Paper production is also responsible for other pollutants with potentially dangerous impacts to humans, including adsorbable organic halides, volatile organic compounds, sulfur, and chloroform.

Evidence points to e-readers being much greener methods of consuming text — though production of the device can have environmental costs. Whether New York’s state legislators will save any emissions, however, depends on the devices they choose to use. Reading at a computer can still be inefficient and environmentally unfriendly, given the energy it takes to power a computer.