A cut too far: The people who can’t give up paper

For 400 years British hydrographers have made paper charts of the world’s seas and oceans. Each one captures the detail of coastlines, bays, straits, or channels. A document like this brims with information, noting the sea’s depth at various locations, the position of rocks, or places where vessels can’t drop anchor.

“It provides an incredibly rich picture for the mariner, to allow them to go about doing their jobs,” says Steven Bastable, product manager at the UK Hydrographic Office (UKHO).

So significant were nautical charts in the past that they were often depicted in portraits of the greatest mariners, including James Cook. Some of Cook’s own charts were eventually published by the UKHO.

Today, nautical charts are kept scrupulously up to date. Every day, staff at the UKHO make corrections or improvements to some of the 3,500 charts they maintain, such as adding the location of harzardous new wrecks and submarine cables or even changes to coastlines. A weekly bulletin communicates adjustments to shipping vessels worldwide and crew members must then get out a pen and manually correct any outdated paper copies.

Yet the last of these weekly updates is on the horizon. The UKHO is gradually preparing to drop its paper chart service and switch to digital-only versions, which would be accessed via Electronic Chart Display Systems on ships. Previously, the UKHO had planned to do this in 2026 – but the deadline was recently scrapped.

“It became clear that there was a problem, and that, if we went too quick on this, there was a very real risk that we would leave mariners behind,” says Bastable. “That’s simply something which we’re not prepared to do.”

The digital transition will bring to an end the tradition of hand-drawing hydrographic charts, then designing them on computer software before being printed. More recently, the UKHO started sending electronic copies to customers who could print the charts themselves.

It turns out that quite a lot of ships still need paper charts. Due to maritime regulations, vessels must carry some form of chart and, despite the availability of electronic versions – which don’t have to be manually updated every week – paper charts continue to be used as backups, or, in some cases, the only such resource on board. The Royal Yachting Association has also said that despite the withdrawal of the UKHO paper charts, it will continue to teach navigation techniques that use them.

Paper, it seems, still rules the waves.

And that’s not all. A 2,000-year-old tradition, real paper made from trees is still considered crucial to countless businesses and government systems globally, despite the environmental impact of producing it. For decades, computers, smartphones and tablets have provided an alternative. Their illuminated displays can be virtually written upon or erased with the press of a few buttons or taps of a screen.

But the crisp flex of an off-white sheet held in the hand, or the way freshly-deposited ink from a favourite pen soaks into the fibrous surface – there is arguably nothing quite like paper.

It’s true, the use of what’s called graphic paper – that is, paper used primarily for conveying printed information – is in clear decline and has been for years. Paper chart sales at the UKHO are at 17% of what they were just a decade ago, says Bastable. Today, they account for less than 16% of all the charts the agency sells now. Nonetheless, paper is stubborn. It can be extraordinarily difficult for many organisations to go fully paperless. That might be down to habit, but in some cases there are strong reasons for holding on to paper – including aesthetics, functionality, and even security. It is weirdly difficult to give up paper.

Updates to the nautical charts produced by the UKHO are sent out every week to vessels, who mark changes with a pen on their own paper copies (Credit: UK Hydrographic Office)

Updates to the nautical charts produced by the UKHO are sent out every week to vessels, who mark changes with a pen on their own paper copies (Credit: UK Hydrographic Office)

“See how this row of gold boxes isn’t even visible from the other side of the page? That is possible because of the thickness of the paper,” says Erin Smith, a popular YouTuber who runs a channel about stationery. She is explaining the virtues of good quality paper in one of her videos about bullet journaling – the practice of designing and maintaining a personal planner or journal in a notebook. Bullet journals are often created with the help of heavy, colourful inks, or motifs glued onto the notebook’s pages. It’s just one example of a special use for paper that has emerged in a world full of digital alternatives.

Smith, who is based in Australia, tells BBC Future that there is a cottage industry of high-quality stationery manufacturers who target their products at those who want to use real paper, pencils and pens, or even watercolour paint in bullet journals to help them track their habits, write up daily schedules or organise the month ahead.

Generally, the best notebook paper has a weight of 160 grams per square metre (gsm), says Smith – about twice the thickness of the paper used in a standard office printer. “Now when I pick up a piece of printer copy paper, I kind of cringe a little bit,” Smith confesses.

But this fixation with physical stationery does not mean that she shuns all things digital. Smith is a YouTuber after all and even prefers to read e-books over paper books. But journaling is a chance to do something creative away from a computer or smartphone screen – and for that she wants the best materials possible. Smith suggests that besides being an enjoyable, mindful experience, there’s a real benefit in selecting paper for tasks like this.

“I do find if I save something in my Google calendar, I’ll remember it if I check,” she says. “But if I write it down, I don’t need to check.”

The mind better grasps elaborate, complex, deep arguments that run over several pages of paper – Richard Harper

There could be something in Smith’s experience of paper versus digital calendars . A study published in 2021 indicated increased brain activity is associated with remembering information once it has been written down by hand, as opposed to recording it on a smartphone or tablet. The research was based on experiments involving a small group of students and recent graduates in Japan, though the authors did not explore the broader or long-term impact this additional brain activity might have on learning.

There’s a big difference between information presented on paper versus on a screen, says Richard Harper, an expert on human computer interactions at the University of Lancaster. In 2002, Harper and his co-author Abigail Sellen, a cognitive and computer scientist now working at Microsoft, published The Myth of the Paperless Office, about why paper remained so vital in many business organisations.

“The mind better grasps elaborate, complex, deep arguments that run over several pages of paper,” says Harper, noting that when you have something particularly nuanced and elaborate to say, putting it down on paper may be a good idea.

In many cases, though, continued reliance on paper isn’t necessarily to do with a genuine appreciation of its attributes. Much like the UKHO, lots of organisations attempt to go largely or exclusively digital only to encounter hurdles. The US government is due to go paperless but it is taking longer than expected. Last year, the National Archives and Records Administration found a third of the sprawling federal government had still not adopted e-records and the Administration was forced to extend the deadline for this by 18 months, to 30 June 2024.

Paper also plays a role in more clandestine sectors of government. In the UK, for example, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) keeps thousands of secret paper files on its personnel in a vault in its basement while the MI5 security service states on its website: “Paper files remain important to MI5.” Russia’s Federal Guard Service (FSO), which is responsible for security at the Kremlin, reverted to using typewriters in 2013, reportedly to prevent computer leaks.

Separately, the logistics industry has long relied on paperwork for documenting the transit of goods, leading to hefty paper trails and sometimes inefficient processing. Although that is starting to change, it’s notoriously difficult to do away with paper records in this sector, say industry insiders.

The healthcare industry has a historical reliance on paper too. From prescriptions to hospital documentation, paper has persevered well into the 21st Century. To take one example, the majority of care homes in south-east Scotland still use paper-based management systems, according to a study published last year. Even when hospitals switch to digital, they may be faced with the burden of storing historical paper documents relating to patient care off-site.

Within the European Union there are 11 countries that still use paper for medical prescriptions rather than digital systems. In the US, paper stubbornly remains in use in some parts of the healthcare system despite attempts to modernise – 96% of hospitals and 78% of physicians were found to use electronic health records in 2021.

Paper still plays a major role in the health systems around the world – from prescriptions to patient notes (Credit: Getty Images)

Paper still plays a major role in the health systems around the world – from prescriptions to patient notes (Credit: Getty Images)

Paper is still considered the backup medium whenever electronic systems fail – which, naturally, they do. In the aftermath of a cyber-attack on a small Alaskan community in 2018, municipal staff quickly switched to paper forms and typewriters when their computers went offline.

Even Wikipedia, a gigantic online resource continually updated and edited by people all around the world, has an emergency plan called the “Terminal Event Management Policy”. During some potential future apocalyptic turn of events such as “imminent societal collapse” or “an imminent extinction level event”, Wikipedia’s millions of editors would be tasked with printing out various pages of the online encyclopaedia for posterity – because paper, ultimately, is considered reliable.

Perhaps it’s not so surprising, then, that in the Star Trek: Voyager episode “The Disease”, Captain Kathryn Janeway reminds one of her crewmembers that Starfleet’s handbook on personal relationships is three centimetres thick, a comment that strongly suggests the handbook, even in the year 2375, is printed on paper.

Paper just seems to have a habit of sticking around.

Other kinds of non-graphic paper, especially cardboard packaging, are flourishing

Oskar Lingqvist, global leader of paper and forest products at management consultants McKinsey, remembers the 100-page wad of presentation materials he and colleagues used to lug to client meetings. The graphs, the data, all printed out and handed around the board room table.

“That’s a segment of paper use I would say that’s almost gone,” he says. But getting rid of the last printed receipt, or form? “That’s going to take a long time.”

Graphic paper is finding niches, such as those mentioned above, where it persists. But the overall trend is clear decline, stresses Lingqvist. And that decline accelerated with the eruption of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Even our most negative scenario wasn’t negative enough compared to what happened in the market,” he says, adding that the rate of decline is now slowing again and will probably return to an annual drop of around 5%, globally. Far fewer newspapers and magazines are printed today than just a decade or two ago, for example, which is one major factor. The rise of working from home, and corporate sustainability drives aimed at reducing paper consumption, also play a role.

But McKinsey’s research also reveals that other kinds of non-graphic paper, especially cardboard packaging, are flourishing. Data from the firm suggests that production of this kind of paper nearly doubled between 2000 and 2020 in Europe. In China, over the same period, it roughly quadrupled. The online shopping boom associated with Covid-19 lockdowns is one reason.

Food packaging, ecommerce packaging and tissue paper – all these kinds of paper are increasingly in demand, says Alice Palmer, a Canada-based freelance consultant for the forestry industry. Paper and cardboard is viewed as more sustainable and yet this distinction is not as clear cut as many think.

Cardboard packaging has become increasingly in demand as online shopping has increased while many brands have also tried to move away from using plastic (Credit: Getty Images)

Cardboard packaging has become increasingly in demand as online shopping has increased while many brands have also tried to move away from using plastic (Credit: Getty Images)

That many retailers are nonetheless moving away from plastic packaging presents an industrial challenge for the paper industry because there are two main ways of making paper, explains Palmer. One involves using chemicals to digest wood down into a pulp. This tends to yield high-quality paper full of strong fibres.

The other method uses heat and grinding action to form the pulp, without the assistance of chemicals. The paper you get from this kind of pulp is a little less robust. For years, though, it worked well for newspapers and brochures.

While the mechanical pulp is less in demand today in some regions, the mills that make it can’t easily convert to making chemical pulp, says Palmer. “You have to rebuild the mill,” she says. “That’s millions or even billions of dollars of investment.”

Cardboard is in demand but that requires strong fibres, which means the old newspaper producers are finding it hard to dominate the packaging materials market. But they can provide a key component in corrugated cardboard: “the wavy layer in the middle”, says Palmer. Canadian paper firm Catalyst Paper, with whom Palmer worked on a research project in 2015, is one example of a company that has made exactly this transition at some of its factories.

If you expand “paper” to mean everything from fancy notebooks to Amazon packaging, it’s clear the material is more popular than ever. But our reliance on paper as a disposable medium for conveying food, or goods, is problematic, says Sergio Baffoni, a campaign coordinator at the Environmental Paper Network (EPN), a worldwide network of organisations focused on making the pulp and paper industry as sustainable as possible.

The EPN reports three billion trees are cut down every year just to satisfy demand for packaging. “That’s insane,” says Baffoni. “Just to throw it away – it’s a nonsense.”

In the UK and the US, roughly one third of paper and cardboard-based packaging waste is not recycled. Baffoni says cardboard makes for a cheap packaging material only because the true cost – to ecosystems and our planet’s ability to sequester carbon via the photosynthesis of trees – is “externalised”. It would be better to find reusable packing materials and maintain those, he suggests. Even plastic containers would be preferable, he argues, if they could be used repeatedly, than single-use cardboard ones.

Paper will likely never go completely out of fashion. But given that across the world we have felled an area of forest larger than the island of Borneo, more than 300,000sq miles (800,000sq km), in just 60 years, there are many who argue we cut down trees far too readily for the sake of a few sheets of paper.

Others would contest that sometimes, it’s worth it: for the smell of a brand new book, for the handwritten letter to an old friend, or the records that must survive even in an apocalyptic future when the last computer and database fails.

Source from: bbc.com