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By Alex Hamlyn

Every day textbooks, outlines, exams, handouts, course packs and newsletters are carried through the halls of Ryerson by the thousands. Replace those thousands of sheets of paper with thousands of bytes of data, and you have what could be the future for Ryerson.

Other than running entirely on renewable energy — which would be nearly impossible for a university — making Ryerson paperless is one of the last, large-scale eco-friendly initiatives the school has yet to tackle.

Ryerson won its second gold award in a row from the Recycling Council of Ontario for recycling 72 per cent of its overall waste last year. The bike room and the soon to be implemented battery recycling bins also demonstrate how the school is working to protect the environment. But paper usage is one of the few things that hasn’t drastically changed. Since the proliferation of personal computers in offices and on campuses, paper use has actually greatly increased. Prior to computers with word processing and spreadsheet programs, most documents would have to be typed or handwritten and then photocopied. With the ability to print 50 copies at the touch of a button, it’s common practice to print out memos and worksheets even when they can be easily read on screen.

All that extra paper is tossed into blue bins. But that doesn’t solve the problem. Recycled materials only return a portion of the original energy and resources that went into making them.

The next step is eliminating the waste altogether. That’s where the idea of a paperless office or administration comes in: everything that can be archived on a computer is, and communication goes from forms and memos to email.

Ryerson could reduce the impact of paper waste in other ways as well. York University recently made their course packages carbon neutral — in other words, they cancel out any carbon emissions with green initiatives. York donates part of the course package sales to Zerofootprint, a nonprofit company that invests in renewable energy and tree planting.

There has been proof that a paperless system can do more than save waste. Johns Hopkins School of Medicine did a study of 41 Texas hospitals. Hospitals that kept most of their records on computer lowered their patient mortality rates as much as 15 per cent, and also saved money. Making their information digital kept patient charts from being misplaced, prescriptions from getting mixed up and generally helped hospitals run more efficiently.

Paperless systems are not without issues though. The biggest is making sure the digital format is accessible to all students and staff, which is not easy thanks to constantly changing computer software — Microsoft’s Word 2007 and its .docx files is a perfect example. Of equal concern is the longevity and stability of digital documents. Since important archive files degrade over time, they would need to have paper backups anyway. And as the crash of the Used Book Room server has shown, even properly backed up servers and databases can fail.

So when could Ryerson go paperless? That’s hard to say thanks to the recession.

With expansion and construction projects already in the works, there isn’t a lot of extra cash for the kind of sweeping modernization paperless requires.

In the meantime, the newly updated RAMSS and the school’s Blackboard system curb paper use. Marks and financial information are kept online, while course readings end up being deleted at the end of the semester instead of on their way to a recycling centre.

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