Paper may be bad for trees, but it is good for people

Even on Earth Day, the costs to our planet don’t outweigh the benefits for education.

A friend tells the story of checking out at the supermarket when a stranger approached and informed him that he should buy the brown paper towels because they are better for the environment than the white ones.

I think of that awkward interaction every Monday morning, as I Xerox paper handouts for my classes that week. I am an anomaly among university faculty, especially junior faculty: Instead of PowerPoint in the classroom, I give my students paper handouts and ask them to take notes by hand. If that stranger was upset by my friend’s white paper towels, what would he think of me printing piles of paper for my students?

With Earth Day coming up, [April 22] I suppose I should feel guilty about all of the paper I waste. But I don’t. My colleagues and I should be using more paper.

The thing is, paper can help us think. Working on paper makes us more productive, receptive and attentive. Giving up bleached-white paper towels isn’t such a sacrifice, but giving up office paper would be a major loss.

Take, for instance, an experiment performed by a team of researchers in Norway. They randomly assigned 72 students to read either a passage on paper or to read it on a computer screen. Those who read the passage on paper scored much better on a comprehension test of the passage.

After running the experiment, the researchers could only speculate as to why the students remembered more when they read on paper. They suspected that there’s just something helpful in seeing the text physically laid out on the page. Readers sometimes remember where on the page they came across a particular passage. But that spatial aspect of reading – the physicality of it – is lost on a digital device.

That one experiment is not alone in suggesting a benefit to using paper. Another experiment, now widely cited, found that students who take notes on paper learn more from lectures than students who take notes with a laptop.

And, for that matter, there’s even research that suggests the doodling students do in each page’s margins might help them pay attention. A researcher in England had one group of students doodle while listening to a recording. She told another group of students to simply sit still. The students who doodled performed better on a surprise memory test that asked about details of the recording.

Those types of studies all suggest that there’s a benefit to paper: We learn more when reading and writing on paper than reading and writing on a digital device. So perhaps the environment would be better off if students were to pore over PowerPoint slides on their laptops while in class, but that certainly does not make for better learning.

The way that some people would have it – I think of the paper-towel guy in the supermarket – is that paper is like toxic waste. They argue that the planet would be better off if we could eliminate it. And perhaps a world in which reading happens only on Kindles and digital screens would be better for the planet’s trees. But it would not be better for us.

That’s not to say that all this paper doesn’t take an environmental toll, a toll we should take seriously. I’m all for using less paper when it comes to pay stubs, receipts, bills and taxes. All that ought to shift to the digital world. (And by all means, switch to the brown paper towels!) Even so, we should be careful not to cut back on paper where it most helps us — when we’re learning, when we need to read carefully, when we need to pay attention.

As I stand by the Xerox machine to print page after page for my students, I now prepare an answer for the vigilante-environmentalist that surprised my friend at the supermarket. Yes, paper has a cost, and we should take the consequences of our actions seriously. But we make decisions based not only on costs but also on benefits. And old-fashioned world with pen and paper brings along enormous benefits.

As published in USA Today. Tal Gross is an assistant professor of health policy at Columbia University.

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