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Friday April 21 12:15 PM ET
By Andrea Orr
PALO ALTO, Calif. (Reuters) - Remember the paperless office?
No one talks about it much anymore, maybe because they are too busy printing out e-mails, articles from online newspapers, and all the other written material they now have access to thanks to the wonders of technology.
But as Earth Day arrives on Saturday, environmentalists say a society that has so readily embraced technology should remember one of the promised benefits that the Internet has failed to deliver.
At one time, computers were expected largely to eliminate the need for paper copies of documents because they could be stored electronically. But for all the volumes of text that are now created, stored and transmitted electronically, an awful lot of it is still ending up on paper.
It is difficult to measure how much paper consumption has resulted from the proliferation of Internet-connected computers, although just about anyone who works in an office can testify that when e-mail is introduced, the printers start working overtime.
``I don't have any hard data, but I know in my bones that this revolution that was designed to be paperless is causing more trees to be cut down,'' says Ted Smith of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. Aside from the loss of trees, paper production itself is highly toxic, consuming large amounts of chlorine and putting more dioxin into the environment.
Perhaps the best indication of how computer and Internet use fuels demand for paper comes from the high-tech industry itself, which has identified printing as one of its most promising new market opportunities.
Several Internet companies including ImageX.com Inc (NasdaqNM:IMGX - news), iPrint.com Inc (NasdaqNM:IPRT - news) and printCafe have been created to help consumers and small businesses print professional quality documents from a PC. And printing giant Hewlett-Packard Co (NYSE:HWP - news) says that far from seeing a slowdown resulting from the rise of electronic ink, demand for printing the old-fashioned way -- on paper -- is exploding.
Earlier this week the company unveiled a sweeping initiative to develop new technologies that will enable consumers to print even more -- from cellphones, pagers and other devices -- so they can get a hard copy of a business document, a medical record or just a memorable one-line e-mail, even if they are nowhere near a PC.
It may seem ironic, but this new printing strategy is central to Hewlett-Packard's Internet strategy. As the company sees it, the increased use of the Internet will correlate directly with increased demand for printers. It says it expects the $40 billion worldwide market for printing and imaging will be a $100 billion market in just three years.
``People love paper,'' says Carolyn Ticknor, who heads Hewlett-Packard's printing and imaging services unit.
``I know people who like to read the newspaper online. Well, I like to read the paper in the bathtub, and I'm not going to take a laptop in there .... I like to buy stocks online. But when I execute a trade, you better believe I make a paper printout of the transaction.''
To demonstrate how the Internet creates new ways to use printers as often as it offers ways to do without them, one of Hewlett-Packard's partners in its new printing strategy is NewspaperDirect.com, which lets consumers order up international newspapers, so they can read the news from California when they are traveling abroad.
Of course consumers can already go to the Internet to read the news from remote locales, but a lot of them prefer holding the paper, explained a spokesman who came to the Hewlett-Packard event to show off his paper goods.
Are these printed on recycled paper? ``No, no,'' the spokesman responded as he handed out samples of the weighty papers. ``It's white bond paper.''
Does this mean environmental concerns have been forgotten? Some activists suggest people have been lulled into believing a lot of threats to the environment have gone away.
``I suspect that there is just an assumption that the problem is taken care of, because of recycling,'' said Kelly Quirke, executive director of the Rainforest Action Network in San Francisco.
Yet Quirke is hopeful that the high-tech trends may also prove helpful. He says new, more sophisticated e-mail programs that let users filter and file by topic, make it easier to retrieve mail that is stored electronically. And printers that print on both sides, he says, are growing in popularity.
The group has also endorsed papers made from alternative fibers, including one made from agricultural waste that could help remove pollutants from the environment. It says it is encouraged by the shift by some major corporations to these new papers.