About 40% of the trash in our landfills is paper and cardboard. And while a lot of that is obviously packing materials, plenty of it comes from our offices. In fact, the Paperless Project claims the average office worker goes through 10,000 sheets a year–45% of which ends up in the trash the same day they’re printed.
Clearly we have a predilection to print things. But what if we could save paper by reprinting it?
That’s the idea behind this rewritable paper, a new bit of research from a team of scientists spanning from Shandong University in China to the University of California, Riverside, to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. They’ve developed a new type of paper that feels like ordinary paper and is relatively inexpensive to produce. But it’s coated with nanoparticles so that it can be printed and erased again and again, kind of like a paper-thin Etch-a-Sketch or a Magna Doodle. Oh, and it doesn’t require a drop of ink.
When hit with UV light, the page can render text that’s sharper than most ink. The text will naturally fade away over five days, but if you want to recycle it quickly, you can warm it to 250°F for about 10 minutes–erasing the text so you can print again on the same page. And then again. Up to 80 times.
Another somewhat wild aspect of the project, which was featured on Phys Org this week, is that the paper isn’t white, but a bright, vivid blue. The paper actually reacts with UV light to turn the blue parts white, leaving a reverse imprint on the page. Researchers are currently developing a laser printer that could print this paper at scale, along with methods to develop full-color prints. I wonder, could you one day print a physical Kindle book, or a rewritable magazine?
Either way, the technology definitely makes sense inside a paper-loving office context, but it does seem to miss the best part of using paper. After all, we can already read articles and sign electronic documents on our phones, tablets, and computer screens. What makes paper great in the age of touchscreen LCDs is its easy analog notation–the fact that you can sketch, draw, highlight, or take notes on it without a second thought. Rewritable paper seems to lack such fundamental UX, and furthermore, because it works by taking negative imprints, it’s hard to imagine that some sort of rewritable pen* could hit the market to accompany it. (And of course, the other great thing about paper is that, in a world of ephemeral information, it’s something permanent. Rewritable paper isn’t that, either.)
All of this said, the world clearly has a paper problem. And there’s no reason the things we print out daily–from newspapers to menus–couldn’t be remade to be reusable. If the U.S. could do anything to reduce the 68 million trees it cuts down each year to feed its hunger for paper, then maybe it’s worth erasing some of our old habits.
* Correction: We’ve since spoken to University of California professor Yadong Yin and learned that the team is actually experimenting with an improved version of their paper which would allow you to actually write on it with a laser pointer–though it would assumably still have some limitations on a reverse-printed sheet.