Myth or Real? Paper Decline in the Digital Age


I’ll admit it, I’m one of those who still believes that there is no adequate replacement for a good paperback book. The feel of the paper as you move through the story, the cover art every time you open or close it, the sun-stained pages and the ghosts of folded corners. I’m not alone in being a lover of physical books, but I do own an e-reader, and I do appreciate that without it, I would struggle to carry 60 books in my back pocket! I’m happy to read in either format, but the truest connections are made in paper; none of my favourite reads have been on a reading device. I sit on the fence, but most people are on either side of it.

Consider now, in general, do you read more on paper or on a screen?

How often do you buy and read a newspaper? How often do/did your parents buy a newspaper? What about your grandparents? When you look back, you may notice that with each generation the periodicals seem to decline in popularity. You could assert some of this decline in popularity simply down to indifference, perhaps people don’t care about the news any more. However, in reality, news consumption is more popular than ever, but in a mobile and digital format. When was the last time you had to negotiate space with a newspaper reader, arms out wide trying to traverse through endless pages of advertising and bite-size stories before culminating at the sport (or in reverse)?

Look around you next time you’re in public. Public interest is divulged through little gadgets we can hold in our hands, how can paper win?

Beyond news, think about your bills. Do you pay them over the internet or telephone? Maybe you get a letter each month in the post, but now even most utility companies offer an electronic or ‘green’ version. With the growth of mobile apps, there are bounteous ways to reduce paper consumption, with the technology providing codes that can replace tickets for the cinema, gigs and even aeroplane flights.

All this conscious reduction of paper has resulted in an estimated 30% less paper use per person than twenty years ago. Guess what, the world population has grown an estimated 30% in that time too, so in a loose kind of speculative maths, it could be suggested that paper production is pretty stable.

The industry suggests that they are only down about 5% due to digital behaviour, far less than many would expect.

With paper recycling a rapidly growing industry, surely this means that less trees are being deforested? That assumption would be incorrect. It’s not really all to do with paper though, trees are also used for wood, but the deforestation, especially in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, is down to clearing lands for cattle ranches. 17% of the Amazon has been chopped down in the last half-century. Paper recycling is helping to make the paper industry more circular, but it’s not a bona fide solution, the real solution lies in finding a sustainable alternative to trees, like hemp, cotton and bamboo.

Depending on your line of work, you may make use of a great deal of paper, you may not make use of any or you may be somewhere in between. I use almost none. Despite being a writer, I have fully embraced the digital age. However, I know that my parents, both of whom work in offices, rely heavily on paper to perform their duties. Producing paperwork, stuffing invoices in envelopes and printing words onto adhesive labels are just a few examples of how the average office worker consumes an estimated 45 sheets of paper a day.

This is more than 10,000 pieces of paper, roughly 4 feet tall!

So, it seems the decline of paper in the digital age is quite subjective. Personally, I believe it to be true, but many people will tell you otherwise. Whilst studying journalism, I was often told that the print industry was a sinking ship, with dwindling circulations pointing the finger at digital media. Since then, the news industry has adapted and welcome the digital age, applying their news to a new platform and for many of the larger publications, finding great success. I deal with almost everything in the online sphere and in my room right now I will admit that I don’t even have a pen and paper. Am I in the few or the many?

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