May 20 Number 2

Given the recent and rapid increases in paper consumption on campus, what is the most ethical approach for the College to adopt in reducing the community's consumption of paper?

Paper consumption on campus has soared in the past few years. There has been a 65% increase in printing in public computing labs from fiscal year 2002 to our projected consumption through the end of this fiscal year. The majority of this increase, 42%, occurred during this academic year. Some colleges and universities that have faced increases in paper use have used print metering systems to charge for each page printed. Discussions of similar pay-to-print scenarios at Carleton have met with some resistance from students and faculty who find them distasteful and potentially unfair. Some concerns have even prompted recent calls in the Carletonian to curb our institutional uses of services such as electronic reserves.

As an institution, Carleton provides an impressive array of information resources, tools, and public events that contribute to our educational environment. As a rule, these resources are provided without additional fees. Ostensibly this is done to create an educational environment in which students can participate without regard to available out of pocket funds. At a moment when students are facing a substantial tuition increase, this is a particularly salient point and not just a quaint tradition.

The Carleton community also has a strong and growing commitment to be responsible in its use of resources. Our institutional investment in wind energy is one example of this commitment. The growing concern about our rate of paper consumption is another. At first blush, the College appears to face a tension between our commitment to equal access to and conservation of resources.

Given the College’s institutional commitment to conserving resources, Carleton cannot continue to subsidize significant increases in paper consumption. “Free” printing in combination with increased access to scholarly (and non-scholarly!) electronic resources appears to have created a situation in which individual members of the Carleton community print and produce more paper waste than at any point in the history of the College. Institutional costs associated with the rapid increases in printing serves to divert resources better spent supporting our educational environment in other ways. Whether the added expense takes the form of increased tuition, or is simply taken out of some other area of funding, the cost of this consumption will be felt within the College. Our current approach is neither sustainable nor free.

It is important to recognize that providing equal access to educational resources need not translate into unbridled consumption of paper. A more acceptable approach to reducing paper consumption might be to institute a print metering system that would track printing at an individual level. Carleton might use such a system to allow students to print for free up to a certain quantity each term and then begin charging once a threshold is crossed. Ideally, the amount of free printing would be sufficient to support academic work but low enough to inhibit wasteful printing. Alternatively Carleton could study a system whereby students would not actually be charged for crossing this threshold but would simply have to apply online to use more, although this idea presents major technical challenges. Such tracking systems can be resource intensive as far as initial financial costs and staff time to install and maintain them, so Carleton faces the question of how to determine at what point such costs are justified. Such a system may help Carleton to preserve access to printing at reasonable levels, help individuals realize how much printing they are actually doing over time and benefit students through greater resources available for other programs.

A tool such as a print metering system may be necessary but cannot be sufficient as an ethical response to rapid increases in paper consumption. Carleton is committed to providing uniform access to scholarly resources necessary to support a first-rate education. This is in keeping with our commitment to provide access to a robust educational environment. It is not tenable to try to revert back to a time before we had convenient access to information through the Internet, electronic scholarly journals, or through electronic reserves. Calls to reject the use of curricular resources such as electronic reserves will fall short. Instead, institutionally we need to question the working environment we have created that has supported such rapid increases in paper consumption.

A longer-term strategy would be for members of the Carleton community to consider how best to respond to an information rich environment without consuming as much paper both at Carleton and beyond. How might we each modify our own printing behaviors? As members of a scholarly community, do we really need to print at our current volume? Might it be possible to evaluate an increasing percentage of the information available to us in an electronic form rather than in print? In short, how might we adjust to an information rich environment in ways that are mindful of the resources that we consume? This last question has powerful implications for each of us as we think about our resource consumption in the long term.

Long term planning is essential in a place like Carleton. Consider the enormous investment made in students with the hope of producing great leaders, citizens and scholars. What if we were to consider other aspects of the college functioning with the same long-term perspective with which we look at our program investments in students? What will paper consumption be like when our current students are middle-aged? What will paper prices be like? For that matter, what will our “world leaders” be like? What will the institutions that they go on to join – or create – be like?

An ethical response to the College’s increasing paper usage requires that as an institution and as individuals we consider issues relating to both access to educational materials and paper consumption. This is the only way we can attend to our dual commitments to educational access and environmental stewardship. For a genuine response, this effort calls not simply for costly enforcement of printing behavior, but for cooperation among the entire community – students, faculty and staff – to use our resources in ways that accomplish our shared goals both today and in the future.

Andrea Nixon,

Associate Director for Academic Computing

Lauren Miller,

Educational Associate, Environment and Technology Studies