Toilet Paper from Office Paper

This article was published by Newsletter, issue #57, .

When computers first appeared in the corporate world, industry pundits and computer salesmen predicted that the increasingly popular computers would eventually herald the "paperless office". What they did not foresee — or intentionally ignored — was that those computers were not the only devices being sold by hardware vendors. Specifically, no computer network was considered complete without one or more printers. Likewise, the average consumer purchasing a PC for home business or personal use, would usually accompany it with a printer. In fact, printers were oftentimes bundled with PCs. Consequently, the dream of everyone storing all information online exclusively, in a paperless office, quickly proved hollow, as computer users became accustomed to the ease of printing documents and Web pages that they otherwise would have left online, if not for the availability of high-speed laser printers, to say nothing of ubiquitous copiers.

So what to do with all of the unread memos, useless documents, and other forms of environmentally unfriendly paper waste? While sitting in corporate cubicles — and occasionally toilet stalls — engineers have had plenty of time to ponder this problem. Most companies and other print-happy organizations have elected to contract recycling firms to periodically cart away truckloads of used paper. However, Japanese engineers have come up with an alternative: Nakabayashi, a Tokyo-based manufacturer of paper-related products, will be introducing in August 2009 a machine that converts used copier paper into rolls of toilet paper. Specifically, it will recycle roughly 1800 sheets of A4-sized paper (which weighs about 7.2 kilograms) into two toilet rolls, within one hour. There is no word on whether it can handle the presence of staples, which would be of great concern to users of the toilet paper. Also, what happens to the paper's ink, in the end. Does it end up… on one's end?

The company may not see a huge flow of orders, given that the planned price tag is $95,000 per unit. Other factors that may discourage customers, are the machine's size and weight (600 kilograms), which may limit sales to large sites that produce reams of unwanted paper, and are willing to pay a high price to convert that waste paper into "waste paper". Furthermore, at current prices, $95,000 can buy over 172,000 rolls of toilet paper. On the other hand, corporate inmates may enjoy pointing to this recycling machine as proof of what they have been claiming all along — that the memos they receive from management are only good for tearing into strips for use in the restrooms.

This ingenious device may prove impractical, financially and logistically, but what about environmentally? Converting 7.2 kilograms of paper into only two toilet rolls, suggests that about 90 percent of the fiber is wasted. How much electricity does that consume, and what is the ecological impact of building those machines, shipping them to customers' sites, and later repairing them? This may be an example of good intentions getting wiped out by economic reality.

In the comedy Office Space, the protagonist is admonished by his boss for failing to put the new cover sheet on his "TPS Report" — a term now part of corporate lexicon, to indicate any sort of mindless paperwork. In the movie, it referred to "Test Program Set". But with the Nakabayashi recycling machine, the "TP" may have a whole new meaning in offices of the future.

Copyright © 2009 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.
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