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Michelle White spends a lot of time thinking about paper.

As the director of sustainability for Indigo, her duties include finding ways to reduce paper consumption at a company that makes most of its money selling books made of, yes, paper.

"We're cognizant that paper is used internally and in the books on our shelves," Ms. White says, noting that the company has embarked on a broad paper-reduction strategy.

Last spring, the company instituted a program that aims to reduce internal paper consumption by 25 per cent by 2012.

Indigo's relationship with paper may be unique, but its drive to reduce the use and waste of paper isn't. Workplaces have been thinking about how to achieve the mythical "paperless office" for decades, albeit with little success. In 1975, Xerox engineer George Pake told BusinessWeek that future office desks would include a "TV-display terminal with keyboard" that could call up reams of documents, files, mail and messages. "I don't know how much hard copy [paper]I'll want in this world," he said.

As it turns out, we can't get enough of it. Statistics Canada reported in 2006 that Canadians' paper consumption "more than doubled between 1983 and 2003" and that "the production and use of paper products is at an all-time high."

Environmental and cost concerns have made paper reduction more of a priority in workplaces both large and small, and companies are turning to a variety of new technologies and services to meet their goals. Little by little, offices are digitizing their paper-based processes and documents.

Two weeks ago, Indigo offered employees at its head office the option of receiving their pay statements electronically. So far, about 35 per cent of staff have signed up. Ms. White says the company would save 156,000 sheets of paper and envelopes every year if all employees joined the program.

Indigo's IT department is also using a Web-based timesheet service offered by Nexonia, a Toronto company, to help get rid of paper timesheets. Instead of having IT staff fill out paper timesheets and submit them to a supervisor for review and approval, employees fill out an online timesheet that is automatically routed to their supervisor and archived by Nexonia.

Neil Wainwright, founder and CEO of Nexonia, says it's a challenge to wean people off paper, but the technology is improving.

"We've all been working with paper since we were born," he says. "We know how to shuffle, stack and file it. To deal with the same information electronically, and in a way that works for people, is a challenge."

Nexonia is one of many companies pitching go-paperless solutions. In the United States, Earth Class Mail receives your snail mail and then scans and e-mails it to you so you can decide whether to have the company e-mail the contents, shred the letter, or ship it directly to you. (It currently only offers P.O boxes in the U.S. and some European countries.) Another company, Shoeboxed, will scan, categorize and digitally archive all of a company's paper receipts. Apart from these offerings, most cable, phone and cellphone companies now offer electronic billing via e-mail. Some also charge customers a fee for paper billing.

In addition to its timesheet product, Nexonia offers a Web-based service for managing expense reports. Before it started using the system in 2007, Tarkett, a flooring company based in Farnham, Que., held on to 12 years worth of paper expense reports in order to comply with relevant laws. As a result, the entire fifth floor of its offices is taken up by paper archives.

Today, its sales team of roughly 250 people all over North America either scan or take a digital photo of their receipts and attach those to an online expense report. From there, it goes to their supervisor for online approval and then archiving.

"The benefit in terms of the paperless world is that it's all done electronically and once we have the approval in the system we can go ahead and release [the payment]" says Bruce McLeod, Tarkett's accounts payable manager. "From beginning to end there is no actual paper being handled."

If Tarkett's floor of paper records sounds daunting, it's nothing compared to the challenge faced by Harold Esche, chief information officer at the University of Calgary. Three years ago, his department evaluated paper use at the school and discovered it was producing 72 million pieces of paper each year, the equivalent of a stack 30,000 feet high. The university then entered into a partnership with Xerox to reduce the use of paper. The school upgraded to more efficient printers, forced double-sided printing on campus, and educated staff, among other measures.

"In three years we've moved from 72 million down to 50 million pieces of paper per year," Mr. Esche says. "But that's still 20,000 feet of paper."

He's not predicting the paperless office any time soon.

"I'm not sure that in my lifetime I'll see the elimination of paper," he says. "I'm hoping to see the elimination of paper as a primary holder of information."

François Ragnet, a Xerox executive who writes a blog called The Future of Documents, believes that a "less paper office" is a more reasonable short-term goal.

"It seems more possible now that we may one day find an economically feasible, suitable replacement of the 'physical' artifact of a document," he wrote in a 2008 white paper titled The "Less Paper" Office: How to Reduce Costs, Enhance Security and be a Better Global Citizen. "But we are not there yet … and in the meantime, it behooves all of us to pursue the very achievable vision of a 'less paper' office."

After all, as Indigo's Ms. White notes, paper is still good for some things.

"I'm one of those people who can never see myself moving to electronic books," she says.

Special to The Globe and Mail

By the numbers

7,800: Average number of pages printed at work each year by Canadians.

39: Percentage of those pages that end up in the trash.

21: Percentage of Canadians in 2008 who believed they were printing more paper than five years ago.

20,000: Total number of pages of paper consumed per capita by Canadians each year.

1,200: Estimated number of square metres covered by that amount of paper.

94: Percentage increase in per capita paper consumption by Canadians between 1983 and 2003.

30 to 35: Estimate of the percentage increase in printing that is a result of e-mail and the Internet. S

Sources: Ivey Business Consulting Group, Leger Marketing, Statistics Canada