ECM against CO2: Are you still a fan of paper in the office?

Published June 25, 2020
Estimated reading time 12 min

Mario Dönnebrink Digital Enthusiast

digital office saves CO2

At the beginning of the year, the American software corporation Microsoft also weighed in on the current climate debate and has taken the offensive.

The American technology giant issued a statement that the company wants to be carbon-neutral by 2030 and wants to compensate for all emissions in its corporate history by 2050.

That is an ambitious undertaking, and I believe how the project is carried out will be decisive for its success: compensation alone will not be enough if the company wants to make a real contribution to society. All available information concerning concretization indicates Microsoft also entertains this opinion.

I personally consider Microsoft’s plans to be exemplary because I am convinced companies need to make a contribution to society now. It will be exciting to see how this turns out.

Microsoft's pathway to carbon negative by 2030

Here is another piece of good news: Microsoft is far from the only company that believes it needs to make a social contribution, specifically by reducing CO2 levels.
At d.velop, we also offer many tools for paper-free offices in the form of software and services, and our Enterprise Content services offer companies, organizations, and administrative bodies the option of digitizing paper-based processes and thus avoiding paper in the office.

We believe these products have clear added value not only in terms of process optimization and the resulting time saved but also owing to sustainability in particular. But just how sustainable is an ECS?
Can the switch to a document management system make your company more sustainable in nature and in deed? Can it reduce CO2 emissions by avoiding paper?

I did some research on the matter and was a bit surprised to discover that there were no essays or simples answer yet.
My suggestion: let’s find out together.

The paperless office: A decades-long passion

I have to admit that completely paperless offices have been very important to me personally for many years, even decades. In the end, they not only pay into our corporate goals 100% but also social goals. But wait a minute! First we need to establish some basic facts.

The main questions are: Can you reduce CO2 emissions by using software or software services to manage and use documents instead of using printed paper?
And if so, how great is this reduction?

Using a sustainability calculator provides a good reference point that can help us answer this question. You can find many of them on the Internet. When deciding which of these calculators you can trust, it is important to know the source of the data they use as the basis for their calculations.
One reliable source is the calculator from, for instance, since it is based on a study by the IFEU (Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Heidelberg) that, in turn, considers scientifically derived analytic results and additional studies. It references primary sources, including those from the German Environment Agency.

How much do you emit and consume per sheet of paper?

The calculator indicates to what extent using recycled paper instead of fresh fiber paper has a positive impact on the environment. It not only shows the difference between the two types of paper but also provides information about the overall input, emissions, and consumption for both kinds of paper. That makes it possible for us to precisely determine the emissions and consumption for each sheet of paper.

Emissions and consumption per sheet of paper produced

  • Wood: 10.281 g
  • Water: 0.211458 l
  • Energy: 43.394 Wh
  • CO2: 5.21g

Thus, by referencing reliable sources, we can determine how much CO2 is released per sheet of paper, how much wood is consumed, and the amount of water and energy required – assuming the wood is sourced from sustainable forestry. In that case, the wood itself is considered carbon neutral. However, recycled paper has a better environmental balance than fresh fiber paper. Yet in reality, the kinds of printing and office papers we currently use consist of only 31 percent old paper, an amount that is slightly increasing. That is the case even though recycled papers have no proven disadvantages in terms of quality, appearance, and archivability.

With that in mind, an average value based on the actual usage (the actual mix of recycled and fresh fiber paper) was used as the basis in the table above.

How much do you emit and consume per sheet of paper you print?

Of course, the sheets of paper that we use every day in the office are printed, not blank. That means the figures we just mentioned are not enough to record the entire burden placed on the environment. We also need to consider the harmful substances released and quantities consumed for each page printed (standby times not considered).

There are reliable sources for this information as well, and you can use them when making your calculations. My own calculation, based on the sources from and, suggests that print mode consumes 500 watts of energy. If the printer has an output of 30 pages a minute, that means it consumes 0.28 Wh per page and thus emits an additional 0.133 g of CO2 (474 g CO2 / KWh for the German electricity mix -> 0.474 g / Wh).
That means we need to increase our figures from above accordingly as a result of printing the paper.

Emissions and consumption per sheet of paper printed (single-sided):

  • Wood: 10.281 g
  • Water: 0.211458 l
  • Energy: 43674 Wh
  • CO2: 5.154 g

The way this calculation is formulated, it is very favorable to paper printing, and so we can trust that we are not overshooting. In the end, if you were to include the start-up phase and production of the printer, you would need to add more than 1 g of CO2.

All right, these pure numbers sound pretty abstract at the moment. Let’s contextualize them.

Example calculations

As is probably the case with all cities, my hometown of Ahaus sends fee settlements to all households once a year. Each fee settlement encompasses 2 pages, and they are sent to approximately 15,000 households. That means 30,000 pages of printed paper and 154.62 kg CO2 in total. As a comparison, you would produce the same emissions by driving approximately 1000 km in a somewhat large passenger car.

Or let’s look at a medium-sized bank with 100,000 customers that sends them their annual letters about deposit guarantees, etc.:
3 pages per customer, or 300,000 pages, correspond to more than 1.5 tons of CO2, and that is for just one mail delivery to all customers (the actual delivery, envelope, and insertion into the envelope are not included…).

The other side of the coin – How much does a sheet of paper saved in digital form harm the environment?

Of course, digitally saved documents also require resources and produce harmful substances. You can’t get something for nothing in the world of resources. That is why we need to determine the amount consumed/amount of harmful substances per digitally saved page as well before we can calculate the net savings of a DMS per sheet of paper.

An international study has calculated that 0.006 kilowatt hours are required for each gigabyte (1,048,576 KB) of data traffic. The website Quarks presents a very vivid comparison from everyday life: “You need about three gigabytes of data to watch an hour of Netflix in full HD resolution. With this same amount of energy, you can keep a 30-watt lamp turned on for about 36 minutes.” (When I read this comparison, I wondered what it was trying to tell me: should I watch Netflix instead of reading for environmental reasons? 😉)

need of electricity streaming

And that takes us back to our application example: no matter whether I use on-premises software or the cloud, when I open my document in an electronic system, I consume this amount of resources every time. Saving, production, etc. are already included in the value.

We assume that 1 paper printout = opening a digital document 10 times a year, since documents are read or accessed multiple times. However, paper documents occasion emissions and consumption only once. By the way, this sort of comparison results in the common assumption that physical archives are carbon neutral.

We assume that a page in a PDF has an average size of 75 KB (this varies depending on the application case), and you need to be able to actively access the files for 3 years on average. If you open this document 10 times a year over a period of 3 years, a page accordingly consumes 0.00001287 KWh and thus 0.0061 g CO2 in this application scenario.

Emissions and consumptions per page using ECM:

  • Wood: 0 g
  • Water: 0 l
  • Energy: 0.01287 Wh
  • CO2: 0.0061 g

That results in the following net savings per page when you use ECM:

  • Wood: 10.281 g
  • Water: 0.211458 l
  • Energy: 43.661 Wh
  • CO2: 5.148 g

The production of paper thus accounts for the lion’s share of resource consumption by a long shot. Its level of CO2 consumption is 800 times the amount of CO2 consumed or emitted during purely digital usage.

If you also take the printing, printer production, and archive room creation processes, etc., into consideration for paper documents, this factor exceeds 1,000 and is thus very reliable.
I find this figure remarkable, and it honestly surprised me during the derivation process. Had I derived a factor of 1, 1.37, 2, 3, or 10, we could have had an excellent discussion about the underlying assumptions and may have reached the conclusion that digital technologies do not provide the improvements hoped for, or at least not to the degree anticipated, in this example. But we have determined that the factor, even when derived using favorable terms for paper, is at least 800 and is realistically more like 1,000. With these results, the consequences are obvious.

The fact that wood and water are not even used in digital processes is almost a fun fact, worthy of note, and a nice side benefit.

If society’s goal is to save resources, we need to make sure that all processes involving documents are digitalized to the point that pure digital processing replaces all temporary printouts and media breaks.
The very large factor (calculated to the benefit of paper) also shows how important it is to actually use a document management system consistently. If you print something out even once because it’s convenient, you’ve already spoiled the very positive balance. Only truly disciplined usage of a DMS or an ECS combined with completely digital processes is really environmentally friendly – and then all the more so.

Positive ecological effects of ECM

What that all of this mean?

Where do we start? Do we need to turn our company on its head right away?

During the corona crisis, we all have just learned that many things can be implemented pragmatically and with little expenditure when needed. They include many digital processes that replace paper-based processes, which were suddenly necessary in quickly implemented home office situations and which were made possible. Examples of them include digital signature processes; we have provisioned and continue to provide a solution for them in this exceptional situation with d.velop sign. Legally compliant digital delivery of documents can be implemented very easily, as opposed to the paper-based example above.

positive ecological impact of ECM

And with all of our solutions, according to the feedback I received from some customers, it was often very easy to switch the entire administrative staff to home office from one day to the next with just a few small steps and adjustments and thus switch to completely digital processes. That was our experience as well.

Therefore, once certain prerequisites have been met, you often need to take only small steps instead of making large changes. And you don’t need to be afraid:
if you encounter obstacles, our experts can help you quickly and smoothly. We have created our own scope of services for this purpose as well.

But what is almost even more important: I believe that making changes like these requires a human impetus above all and in addition to challenges presented by external circumstances, which result in acceleration but do not determine the scope.

Only when these factors unite can we actually detect target-oriented progress. People, not external circumstances, always determine the direction and define the goals.

Praise for bold decision-makers

At this point, I would like to take the opportunity to praise certain people highly. It is very exciting to see how purposefully many decision-makers at our customers’ companies have taken on precisely this leading role – some of them have already done so for several years. These are the very companies that have experienced significant success in digitalization in recent weeks.

And this is exactly where I want to encourage everyone who would like to add momentum to digitalization:
simply try out the tools that already exist. Sign up for relevant services and get an impression of them yourself. We would be happy to help you. And you, not your company, need to set a good example by testing the tools and living digital implementations.

Let’s make progress by setting a good example

I myself privately scan and store all of my paper receipts and paper documents with one of the fantastic “d.velop tools” (which, by the way, is still available to all end users for free).

I admit it does take some getting used to, and you do need to modify some processes (e.g., consistently continuing to store everything at the same location). However, the “rewards” of having all your documents available everywhere in the cloud and carrying out further processing without having to switch media, which now makes it possible to perform digital signatures within seconds, for example, far outweigh these adjustments.

And now that I know that I have saved almost half a ton of CO2 simply by using my private digital document storage system, I have another good reason to keep using it.

And that’s why I have every reason to ask:

What’s holding you back?

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