The true cost of working with paper in 2020

Posted by Kevin D'Arcy on May 31, 2020 7:33:15 PM


The true cost of working with paper in 2020-1


If you haven’t jumped on the paperless bandwagon yet, take a look at why your staff, your bank account, the planet, and your kids think you should.


Millions, billions, and trillions

A ballpark figure of 10 000 sheets of paper is what the average office worker goes through in one year. The cost of 10 000 sheets of paper is approximately $120 (Office Depot). Multiply that by the number of employee and you have a tidy office supply expense for your tax column. But the true cost of that paper can only be calculated after we follow the paper trail—how that paper is used.

First of all, why do we still have a love affair with paper in 2020? Easy. Because the current workforce (from Baby Boomers all the way down to Millenials and the most recent addition, Gen Z) grew up with the crispness of paper and the cozy familiarity of ink. The global ballpoint pen market brought in a stable $15 billion in sales in 2017, with a forecast of $19 billion USD by 2025.

Granted, Gen Z was more digital than analog and things are rapidly transforming away from paper now. Right? Nope. Despite smart boards and Chrome Books and touch screens replacing giant easel pads, notebooks, and writing utensils, somehow with that digital revolution didn’t come a reduction in paper waste. Projections for paper use are going up. Paper demand is projected to double before 2030.


What incentives do we have to put the paper away for good?

  1. The cost: time, supplies, productivity.
  2. The carbon footprint: paper kills the earth

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Wasted time, costly supplies, energy bills, and productivity bottlenecks

Supply costs:

Printers, toner cartridges, paper, writing tools, shredders, photocopiers, staples, paperclips, folders, and cabinets. These line items add up to somewhere around $400 000 a year for an average company.

Energy costs:

Operating several fax machines, printers, and photocopiers the size of smart cars—good heavens how do we still have these antiquated electronic beasts in our offices?—and paying for lighting in bigger offices that house these behemoths stresses your budget. How do you put a dollar figure on that? Let’s agree to call it wastefully expensive.

Productivity costs:

Office workers waste a ton of time locating paper documents in coworker-specific file structures (Seriously, Jon? You filed that by month and year?) that aren’t intuitive. Instead of focussing on making the company more money by using their talents, staff diverts their energies toward tracking down documents. And they probably carve out time to meditate to get them through the broken look-and-find game. The equivalent of one day a week is lost to searching for documents:


McKinsey reported that “employees spend 1.8 hours every day—9.3 hours per week, on average—searching and gathering information. Put another way, businesses hire 5 employees but only 4 shows up to work; the fifth is off searching for answers, but not contributing any value.”—Xenit


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Gartner flags 18 minutes as the average time it takes one employee to find a paper file—or up to 120 minutes if the paper is misfiled. Surveys show that employees spend somewhere around 150 hours a year searching for files in cabinets. At $30/hour, that’s an expense of $4500 per employee lost per year doing nothing more than searching for the document in order to perform the tasks they are paid to perform. Now multiply that by hundreds or thousands of employees. Or multiply that by a higher wage factor and you get this calculation:

Assuming an average yearly salary of $80 000, the inability to find and retrieve documents costs an organization that employs 1000 workers, $25 million per year. (Xenit)

Or, how about the per-piece-of-paper analogy:

Every time a worker touches a piece of paper it costs $20. (Gartner)


Well, that hurts more than a paper cut, doesn’t it? Paper is expensive to run. It’s time to stop running on paper.


Here are a few more prickly points about the price of paper to put you in a paper pitching mood:

  • On average, the cost in labor to file one document is $20.
  • Between 2% and 5% of an organization’s files are lost or misfiled on any given day.
  • Companies on average spend $120 in labor to find one misfiled document.
  • One out of every 20 documents is lost.
  • Approximately 25 hours are spent recreating each lost document.
  • Approximately 10-12% of documents are not found the first time.
  • The average employee spends 400 hours per year searching for documents.
  • More than 70% of today’s businesses would fail within three weeks if they suffered a catastrophic loss of paper-based records due to fire or flood.
  • It takes an average of 10 minutes per paper document to retrieve, copy and re-file.
  • The average document is copied 19 times.
  • The average worker makes 61 trips to the fax machine, copier, and printer—the fitbit is happy!
  • Each four-drawer file cabinet holds an average of 10-12,000 documents, takes up 9 square feet of floor space, and costs $1,500 per year.

– Sources: Gartner Group, AIIM, US Dept of Labor, Imaging Magazine, Coopers & Lybrand


What we take from these numbers is that they paint the same pitiful picture: paper is a problem for the planet. And since there is a more affordable, safer, better alternative out there—digital—and it’s been out there for a long while now and proven itself as win in all categories, what are you waiting for?

Working with paper not only makes your pocketbook cry, it makes forests and environmentalists cry, too.


Carbon Footprint Karma

A conservative estimate puts the number of documents printed each year at 7.5 billion with 15 trillion copies of originals hitting photocopiers annually. If you’re office is doing that, you’re doing your part to destroy the world for your kids.

Every tree left standing creates oxygen for 3 people to breathe. And yet, we fuel cutting them down when we keep paper coming in and keep paper appliances plugged in and churning. Old habits die hard, but it’s the planet we’re talking about here. Aside from the egregious amount of money lost working with paper, there’s the morality part of it. The paper process isn’t green.

To produce 1kg of paper requires 324 L of water (Environment Canada). Paper production drives pulp demand which causes deforestation. 42% of the destructive clear-cutting that goes on in this world is for paper production (not even including paper packaging, which makes up ⅓ of our trash heaps). Then add to that the fact that paper production is the biggest fossil fuel polluter in the world and that it calls for chlorine bleach that contaminates land and sea. When paper finally breaks down—at least it’s not plastic right?—it emits methane gas, which is toxic. But not as toxic as dioxins (which is what leaches into the world when plastics break down). Oh, but wait. Dioxins are a by-product of paper manufacturing.

Sum total: we’ve got forests coming down off the face of the earth which makes the air we breathe less sweet, an environmentally-harmful production process that burns a hole in the atmosphere and leaches toxins that cause cancer into the food we eat and water we drink, and then creates expensive waste and costly productivity bottlenecks at work that feeds landfills with offcasts from a failed recycling effort.


Save a penny and a tree (and make your staff happier)

Automate your paper-heavy, manual business processes with digital workflows. Scan paper to digital (then archive or recycle it) so you can search for, retrieve, process, and share information from anywhere with any device. Enhance collaboration, speed up decision making, and stop wasting your human resources on chasing paper. Encourage paperless policies and get rid of printers and photocopiers… there are apps for that now. Leave that costly paper behind.

Not sure where to start? Start by outsourcing your large-scale scanning requirements to MES. Working with paper costs more than changing paper to digital and working with it digitally.Paper costs wasted time, money, and employee energy—it even comes with the risk of compliant-based lawsuits moving forward. Turn things around today. Start saving money and that planet. Contact MES today.

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