Despite our tablets and laptops and smartphones, the paperless office–first predicted in the 1970s–still hasn’t quite happened. In the last three decades, while digital tech spread, global paper consumption tripled. A 2012 report found that the average American uses the equivalent of six full-size trees’ worth of paper every year.
Most of that paper goes straight in the recycling bin after a quick read. So rewritable paper that can be erased, and then reused to print something else, may be a viable replacement. Researchers at the University of California-Riverside have created a new rewritable paper that they say will ultimately be cheaper–and much better for the environment–than felling trees.
The “paper,” for the moment, is actually a thin plastic film coated in non-toxic dyes. When the dye is exposed to ultraviolet light, it turns colorless, leaving words on the page. The text lasts for three to five days before fading away, just long enough to be read. It can also be quickly erased with heat. The whole process can be repeated up to 20 times.
Because the rewritable paper uses the same dye over and over, it ends up being cheaper than using a conventional printer.
“One of the advantages of this technology is its low cost, in both paper production and printing,” explains Yadong Yin, a professor of chemistry at UC Riverside, who recently published a paper on his team’s design. “The production cost of the paper is only a small fraction more than the regular ones. It is true that new printers should be designed, but they could be conveniently modified from the current laser printers. As no inks are needed, the investment in such a printer is expected to be much lower than the current ones.”
The process also uses less energy than regular paper, and avoids the deforestation and pollution of the paper industry. It isn’t the first attempt at rewritable paper, but past designs were expensive and slow to print, and used toxic dyes that faded away too quickly to be very useful.
After a little more time in the lab, as the researchers explore options for multicolor printing and better durability, the technology may be commercialized in a few years. Even in a digital world, Yin believes there will always be a reason to print something out.
“The fact is that with digital devices becoming more and more popular, people are consuming more paper or paper related products than before,” he says. “Digital devices are advantageous in fast recording and displaying information, but paper has many merits such as convenience, low cost, easy exchange between people, wide availability, less eye strains for reading, and flexibility–it’s more comfortable to hold.”
“Many people would prefer to read news on conventional newspapers rather than tablet PCs,” he adds. “Also, one does not need to worry about charging and maintaining batteries for rewritable paper. I believe there would be a strong demand for it.”