Between the sheets

  • LEAVE A COMMENT

The actual e-mail, like so many others, is gone. It was from Frank Dubec, the publisher of this newspaper, who is a little more Yahoo in the Swiftian sense than you’d think for a guy charged with balancing budgets.


Bobcattin’: The Rivanna Solid Waste Authority’s Paper Sort Facility takes in 4,000 to 5,000 tons of recyclable material each year. Last year, it recycled 429 tons of office paper.

The first time I read Frank’s e-mail, it bothered me. I was at home, and I printed it out. I’m not sure exactly why I needed to see it on paper; it was already there on the screen, and would be until the time I deleted it weeks later. Holding that piece of paper, seeing Frank’s words static on a page, made it more real, documental, easier to understand and then dismiss, never mind the same words glowed on the screen not 2′ away from my head. The next morning at the office, I printed it again, took a pen and marked it up with notes in my own vaguely third-graderish scrawl.

His e-mail began something like this: “Unless this is an experiment in forced obedience….” In so many words, he said I was a dumbass for trying to get everyone in the office to spend a week emptying every scrap of paper they used into two large cardboard boxes.

My initial nervousness that I had already sunk this project dissipated after mapping out my plan with a pen on Frank’s e-mail. Suddenly, his was just another electronic missive from a boss, not assignment-killing criticism.

Like the e-mail, those two print copies are long gone. They could be in the bucket of a Bobcat, or in one of the many mountains of paper just off of Meade Avenue. The two sheets could be in a tractor-trailer, crumpled tight amongst tons of other workday clutter, rocking their way to Richmond. Or they could already be there, fibers ripped asunder, drying into pulp, waiting to be put together again, a fresh sheet of paper, ready for the next time you or I hit “Print.”

Western promise

I sit by the printer at work and, seemingly without pause, the yellow light blinks and gives way to its green counterpart. Something deep inside the plastic casing clicks, and then there’s a whir. The beige box spits out page after page, which, if retrieved quickly enough, still hold the warm smell of ink, a scent that, if one were to close eyes and lift it to nose, smells vaguely ripe, moist, even a little post-coital. Most of the time I don’t notice.
 
But sometimes I do, and on those days certain promises made 10 years ago come to mind. We’d been promised a paperless office, a workplace devoid of the scattered, cluttered clumps of paper humpbacking everyone’s desk. Everything, a voice deep from Silicon Valley seemed to whisper, was changing. E-mail would replace the letter, the PDF the fax. Entire libraries were being put online. Copiers soon would have their place alongside Archie Bunker’s chair in the Smithsonian, another relic from a time that had, thankfully, passed.

If that voice were right, then why this constant mechanical chugging 2′ from my head? Why this rolling range of papers forever changing the topography of my desk, just to the left of my computer, that smallish gray machine sent to eliminate the wave of waste now threatening to crest and bury it?

If this voice were to be trusted, then what about the four cardboard boxes—not two—tucked away in the dark corner of the newsroom? For weeks they’ve sat there, boxes full to their tops of the best tactile argument against this paperless office myth. Roughly 140 pounds of paper, 6′ if stacked from the floor. That’s a welterweight boxer. That’s a fat supermodel.

There are around 5,000 sheets of paper that, if laid end to end, would stretch farther than 10 miles. Combine that with the approximately 800 envelopes and beginning Downtown, you could damn near walk out of the city on a path made from a week’s worth of our paper.

Years after technology promised to save us from drowning in a sea of paper, most of us are still bobbing along, swirling eddies of faxes, printouts, handwritten notes surrounding us, copies of copies of copies. So why is paper—everyday, foldable, analogue paper—so integral to the work we do? And what happens to all that paper when, like the vast majority of people riding the desk rodeo, we toss it away after its use has come to its end?

Pulp and the paperless fiction

It wasn’t always supposed to be this way. Back in the mid-1970s, the kernel of the idea that would later grow into the Paperless Office formed in the unlikeliest of spots—Xerox, the heart of the paper business. While the main of the company was pumping out copy machines, a small research team was looking at the possibility of an office that didn’t run on paper.

This wasn’t new intellectual ground. The county had already seen the advance of the telegraph and phonograph almost a century before—two devices meant to vie for the informational supremacy that paper had long held. Edison, when he first invented a cylinder that could record a human voice, suggested one of its main uses to be dictatorial, a replacement of the business letter.

Eventually, the paperless ideal was reshaped by the technological forces of the 1990s: Ethernet-connected computers, the World Wide Web and Hypertext Markup Language, better known to geeks workwide as HTML. All of these transmitted information between users without the need or burden of paper. Instead of reams of office stock, information could now reside virtually, in the form of word-processed documents or online. Paper, as informational currency, was on its way out.

Or so some thought. The idea of the Paperless Office began to spread from geeked-up information architects to soft-bellied middle managers looking to save the company on paper costs. But the advent of the World Wide Web increased paper consumption not only in the office but at the homes of the now-wired workers. Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper, in their book The Myth of the Paperless Office, show that in 2002, the peak of the Silicon Valley boom, the output of the paper industry was greater than ever, and that the introduction of e-mail into organizations increased paper consumption by 40 percent.

That increase becomes real on a recent Friday morning when Bruce Edmonds and I roll into the Paper Sort Facility about 20 minutes ahead of a massive, three-axle truck bearing a mixed-paper bin from the McIntire Recycling facility. All of McIntire’s paper comes here. So does the paper from the city governmental buildings and commercial haulers, paper from the sundry city businesses, C-VILLE among them. If the two printed copies of Frank’s e-mail found their way into a recycle bin, they would have passed through here.

And all of this is overseen by Edmonds, whose official title with RSWA is Recycling & Litter Manager, but who describes himself as “kind of a Greenpeace guy.” Whether real or imagined, he carries himself as a man under constant scrutiny, shoulders hunched in anticipation of another barrage of criticism. It’s a little over 40 degrees today, and he’s wearing a Pittsburgh hoodie, hair pulled back in a ponytail with a purple band.

Last year, like the year before it, and the year before that, a foldable, marked up, dog-eared tidal wave washed through this facility tucked away in the corner of a Meade Avenue scrap yard. In a corner of Coiner’s Scrap Yard, two men work for eight hours a day, five days a week, and do nothing but deal with the incredible, never-ending amount of paper we produce.

A part of the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority, the Paper Sort Facility at Meade Avenue serves as the last port of call for paper leaving the city on its way to be recycled. In 2007, the facility processed roughly 429 tons of office paper alone, the equivalent of more than six M1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks, the kind used in the first Gulf War.
 
Paper here is classified in five categories. There is office paper, the six tanks. The facility also recycled 763 tons of mixed paper, the wrapping paper found on nearly every product, the paper six-pack holders of beer, the paper packaging around the reams of office paper that we tear into nearly every other day. It also moved 2,323 tons of newsprint and magazines, 818 tons of cardboard. All of it recycled.

From here, the five grades of paper make their way to plants in Richmond, Danville and Lynchburg, depending on where space is available. There, tons of paper are turned into pulp, and that pulp is turned into recycled paper, and that paper is sold to various companies that will sell it back to us, which we will, in all probability, stuff in a recycling bin and ship off to the Paper Sort Facility.

“Maybe it’s my personality and I don’t do a real good job of being real nice, but I tell people everything we take at McIntire, we’re recycling it or reusing it,” Edmonds said the first time we talked. Though he talks like a man on a drip coffee IV, he is exceedingly amiable, his tossed-off comments aimed at some ethereal, perpetual recycling critic stand as strange non sequiturs.

“I visit all of these plants because I trust no one,” he continued. “We just started taking those compact florescent bulbs, and last Thursday I drove down to Richmond and spent the entire day down there at the factory learning how they’re being recycled. And I paid for my own lunch, by the way. That’s the kind of guy I am. I’m one of those nut cases. And I tell people—and I’m going to be honest—they’re not overpaying me.”

Where is my mind? (On your desk)

If it’s easy to trace the path of paper once it’s outlived its institutional usefulness, it is hard to know just how much paper is being used. The city is reluctant to disclose the amount of office paper it buys. They work with three vendors, and while they have the numbers from two, they are unable to get quantities from the third. Since giving the two numbers would be an incomplete picture, says city spokesperson Ric Barrick, the city won’t release any numbers.

It’s the same story with Albemarle County, though they will say the county recycled 63.05 tons of paper last year. The city, with its single-stream recycling program that lumps all recyclable materials together, is unable to quantify the amount of paper it recycles.

UVA, on the other hand, runs its own recycling center and keeps record of the amount of paper that passes through. In 2005, UVA recycled 1,745 tons of paper—four times more than what the entire county recycled last year. In 2006, the total jumped nearly 200 tons to 1,937. From 2000 to August 2007, UVA has recycled roughly 13,402 tons of paper.
In the age of e-mail, PDF and wireless everything, UVA’s tonnage equivalent of a battleship hardly points to a paperless future. Where did the Paperless Office go so wrong?

Proponents of the Paperless Office saw paper as a simple medium for information. What they missed was paper’s functionality as a tool for managing and creating the information it transports. They saw costs to buy, store and deliver, but didn’t recognize what Sellen and Harper dubbed its “affordance”—what paper helps us do.

Paper can be marked up, shuffled, spread out, passed between different people, folded, thumbed through and left on our desks as a physical reminder. Sellen and Harper found that our desks serve as snapshots of our minds. The way we order the paper on our desks tells us which particular thread of thinking we were following after we return from lunch, and the papers at the tops of our piles show us what our mental priorities were. The notes, underlinings and marked-up pages give us a stop-motion shot of our mind at work.

Five years ago, I worked at a Washington, D.C. nonprofit. Like most of these operations, ours was powered by under-25 desk jockeys, we who traded low pay for the promise of work days capped at eight hours and the right to wear wrinkled jeans unbothered by the suited higher-ups. We quickly came to realize two things. First, the length of your title was precisely and reversely proportional to your actual importance. Second, those of us who had the cleanest desks didn’t do shit.

Our desks were monuments to output, real or, on some days, feigned. Some of us cultivated piles of papers like giant bonsai trees, tending them daily until they shattered the dichotomy of perfection and imperfection, crossing into some sort of office zen. We also noticed our boss, the man charged with the organization’s day-to-day activities, had as much paper on his desk as he did hair on his head.

He would often come and stand by our desks, making noises about mess and inefficiency. We kept quite. He had a furious temper and not a social skill at his disposal. None of us were surprised to learn, I’m sure, that after he left, the organization’s books were found to be in disarray. The board of directors saw his clean desk and felt confident in a man who was so obviously organized and well be-suited. We compared his desk with our own and stared into his windowed office from our cubes, silently judging.

These internal landscapes spread bare across desks mean little to anyone but us. Even now, I know exactly what “tour = vid” and “thurs paper w/ Cathy” means, notes scribbled from a meeting on a printed to-do list. But if I begin to dig through the stacks of other people’s paper that I’ve collected from the office, little of it means anything to me.

On top of a three-line memo titled “The Wonders of Winter” is the figure, written in black ink, 23/10. I don’t know if those numbers (a fraction? a ratio?) are related to the words below, or were scribbled completely independently in a moment of hurried work.

There is a yellow post-it, the size of a thumb, that says, “Follow-up. Idea: Flesh out: Get done.”

There is a list of our local entertainment picks—Sharon Jones, Tim Reynolds, UVA tennis—with check marks by some entries, others crossed out entirely. A name is circled, and a line in red ink drawn to the handwritten words “speculate; board chair.”

Paper haze

As facilities go, the Paper Sort isn’t much. Five tractor trailers sit at the wait in back of a large concrete slab where the large metal bins of paper are dumped. From there the cardboard and mixed paper gets baled. The office paper is kept loose because of its lack of heft and the fact that a good lot of it comes to the facility shredded.

Every Wednesday morning, for example, the city drops off its shredded documents. “Faithfully,” says Edmonds. “They’ve never missed it. It’s 9 o’clock, here the boys are.”

The truck from McIntire rumbles in, backs up to the slab, and its back hydraulic lifts come to life, unsheathing the bright chrome bars as the truck’s bed tips up. A small amount of paper trickles out, and then gravity kicks in and a seemingly endless pile of paper disgorges itself from the bin. Because the paper inside the bin is loose, the haul is probably only three or four tons. Cardboard loads, because they are compacted at McIntire, weigh more than five tons.

The driver stops the bed mid-tilt and backs up the truck, pushing the paper on the concrete into a semi-compressed pile. The bed starts up again with a hydraulic whine, and more paper tumbles on top of the pile.

This is the mixed paper, the Diet Coke 12-packs and Raisin Bran boxes, and it will be sorted through and baled. Larry begins to warm up the compactor. Once the truck leaves, Bobby will jump in the Bobcat to dump the loose paper into the humming, shaking mouth of the compactor. Every couple of minutes, a loud pop, gun-shot-like, will ricochet off the concrete floor and around the three walls. It’s the sound of a metal band being shot around the massive brick of compressed paper.

All the paper, loose or compacted, is stuffed into the trailers by Bobby with the Bobcat, a small front-end loader that is driven with two handles, the bucket of which is operated with foot pedals. It is a nightmare for an unseasoned operator; everything about it is reversed. Bobby, in his late 30s or early 40s and bearded, is to the Bobcat what Jimi Hendrix was to the electric guitar.


Waste not: “I’m under this environmental management system that Rivanna instituted at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars, meaning that we’re reducing our carbon footprint,” said RSWA’s Bruce Edmonds. “Every trailer that leaves here is fully loaded.”

Edmonds walks inside a trailer filled with loose office paper. It is packed tight against the back wall, floor to 10′ ceiling, as if an enormous hand had flattened it all to an end. This is Bobby’s work. Sheets and sheets of paper form a wall in front of me, starting at my feet and gradually reaching the ceiling. Intermixed with the regular sheets are the confetti-like strips of shredded documents, presumably from the city.

“See how good my guys are?” asks Edmonds, pointing to the trailer’s ceiling. “Notice they haven’t busted my trailer. These men, Larry and Bobby, are very trained.”

He looks over the stack of paper up to the ceiling.

“That’s tight,” he says. In my hour or so here, it becomes obvious Edmonds thinks about paper stacking the way a museum curator might think about the layout of a new exhibit. “See how tight that is? You get the wrong guy in here, I walk in here and in two seconds I can judge their work. One, I could see the sun. Two, it would only be about this high,” he says, hand at his chest.

Edmonds moves back to the bales. “Think about how tight that compaction is,” he says.
Think about it. You can tell Edmonds does. Not look. Not notice. Not ponder. Think.

End of the paper trail

In this wall of paper, single sheets stick out. Most look similar: inked over, marked up, margins filled with phrases, numbers and words with a collective meaning amounting to a dada poem. And here is what the Paperless Office people didn’t figure on—rarely do we read anything in the office without a pen in hand.

Paper allows us to read and write at once, as well as navigate through large documents. As Sellen and Harper discovered, at work we rarely read in a linear fashion. Instead, people page through documents, skim and skip, get a sense for certain sections. Ironically, linear reading is the mode that digital technology best facilitates. Begin to read a PDF longer than two pages, and a feeling arises that is akin to walking down a sewer pipe.

Technology hasn’t eliminated paper from the office—it’s simply given us another medium in which to work: dual use. And here we now stand, one foot firmly planted in the land of paper, the other put forward into the benefits and limitations of digital technology. The question, then, is this: Is dual use, the combination of paper and technology we use to do work, a viable compromise between the way we work and the connectivity of technology?

Or is dual use just an evolutionary way station on the path to an all-digital world?

More and more of our communication outside of work has moved into the digital realm, with almost no trail of paper, no proof weeks or years from now that these conversations ever happened. Quick text messages, lives lived via MySpace and Facebook, our cultural channels are increasingly leaving paper behind. Ten years from now, when your average 22-year-old starts his or her first office job having been plugged into this digital landscape from birth, will we still leave the same overwhelming amount of paper in our wake?

Looking at our paper use today, it’s hard to imagine we won’t. But then I remember my time as a graduate assistant at a Northern Virginia university, where I taught freshmen and sophomores. Just five years removed from my own undergraduate days when pen and paper were all you needed in class, and when not everyone I knew owned a computer, it was a jarring first day when students walked into English 201, flipped open their laptops and sat prepared to type notes (while—I tried not to notice—playing solitaire and surfing the Internet).

About a third of class readings came from the Web, so imagine my surprise when the time came for us to discuss the first one. I asked the students to take out the essay, which I had assumed they had printed then dutifully marked up.

Blank looks, confusion. Only one or two people had printed the essay. The rest had read it online and, if they were to be believed, typed any notes they took on their computers.

We had a quick talk about the necessity of printing everything we read and bringing it to class, and for the most part, that’s the way it worked from there on out. But even as I was explaining all this, the looks from these newly minted college students served to point out the absurdity of what I was saying. Read something, take notes, then print everything out? It hadn’t even occurred to them not to read a dense essay on their screens. I felt so old.

In a world where technology is the means of dissemination, but paper the way in which we interact with information, how much of paper’s necessity is vestigial, waiting to be discarded with an evolutionary shake of the shoulders? If you grow up with pixels as your visual medium, then what good is paper?

Back at the facility, the truck has emptied the bin and is driving away. Bobby jumps in the Bobcat and Larry punches in the code to start the baler. It kicks itself to life, and the rumble of the departing truck begins giving way to another motorized sound, the baler, higher pitched and hollow.

The truck will be back here again Monday, says Edmonds, full. In fact, he’s seen an increase in all grades of paper coming through here. All of it except newsprint. “The 30-and-under crowd,” he says, referring to the decline in daily newspaper subscriptions, “are going Net.”