PDF In-Depth

PDF: The sustainable document technology

May 28, 2009

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What do you think of when you hear the phrase, "green technologies"? Perhaps solar panels, electric cars, eco-friendly houses, carbon-neutral wind generators? Maybe you even recall the so-called "Paperless Office" -- a term bandied around in the mid-to-late 70s.

Well, rather than a world with smiling trees and printers covered with cobwebs -- paper is now being used more than ever before. According to a White Paper from GreenPrint Technologies, paper usage doubled from 70 million tons to 140 million tons during the period from 1996 -- 1980. By 2010 that figure is expected to be around 396 million tons.

That's a lot of trees which are no longer assisting to de-carbonize the globe.

But actually, unbeknownst to most -- it's not just the dead trees that cause the problem; according to Time Magazine's article, "The Hidden Life of Paper and Its Impact on the Environment" -- it's the paper-production process which causes the majority of the concern. From the large amount of energy consumption required to break down wood pulp into paper to the burning or recycling of old magazines, papers and books.

What's something we can all do about it?

The answer is simple -- every time you're just about to print a document, take a deep breath, and create a PDF instead. Let's face it, when used wisely within businesses and at home -- PDF is in its essence a green technology.

Think about how the majority of PDF creation applications operate -- first up, you install what's called a "virtual printer driver". This clever little piece of software sits waiting for us to "print" a document to it, and then whiz-bang, hey presto -- it produces a brand-new-all-sparkling PDF file instead, which given its electronic nature, can be distributed to an infinite number of people, at no additional cost.

No wood pulping, no paper-milling, no mass printing, and no wood burning -- not a single piece of paper required! Whilst, there's still obviously some power consumption involved, it's nothing on the scale of paper production. But perhaps with the advent of laptop chargers such as the Picard Solar series laptop bags, we'll be able to minimize that even further -- although it'll probably take a number of years for to be truly effective.

Everyone's getting on-board -- there's PDF-generating software built into all sorts of products such as client-side applications like Quicken and Microsoft Office 2007 (on the Windows platform), as well as custom server-based systems outputting files from Crystal Reports and Oracle Databases (and yes, others too).

In addition -- as well as the kingpin and grandmaster of PDF creation and editing, Adobe Acrobat, you can also download a vast number of PDF creating applications. Whilst price can dictate the quality of the PDFs created, you can even pick some up totally free! For Mac users, creating PDF is a no-brainer (and for average non-graphics professional user -- totally free). Yep, if you choose File > Print, then you can save your document directly to a PDF with no additional software required.

Banks, gas and power utilities, mobile phone carriers -- they're all offering PDF-based billing as a method of reducing their paper expenditure (and expenses). And often, this discount is passed onto the customer. This is a good thing. It means that we are able to make a deliberate decision as to when we actually need a paper document, as opposed to just being given one regardless. Of course, some training and changes to work-practices are going to be required to stop us just blindly printing everything we read.

We've looked at how PDF can help us all by providing us with many options when we're looking to create and distribute, archive and access information -- but what about the flip-side, going from paper back-to-digital. Can PDF somehow 'unlock' information that's trapped within archives of paper documents, perhaps from years gone by, or maybe from documents that you're still receiving from some sort of printer or even via a fax? Well, an ever increasing number of people are achieving this by scanning their files or using PDF-based fax-to-email services -- in fact, I like to think of PDF acting as an on-ramp for a "virtual filing cabinet".

You could even go as far to say that a mini-industry has developed around the process -- a quick search at Google for "scan to pdf" reveals almost 200,000 results. Not only can you get an almost picture perfect copy of the original document, you can also make use of OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software to convert the image-of-a-document to computer-readable text which can be used for copy, pasting, searching -- even reading aloud. And the software required for this process is most-likely already built-into your standard scanning applications such as ScanSoft's OmniPage Professional. Hopefully with effort and PDF, we can do for paper and energy consumption, what the hybrid car is doing for petrol usage. Whilst a print-out is still the only option in many cases, what PDF offers us is a viable way of decreasing usage and changing working habits over time, along with minimizing energy usage.

Heck, to truly change your working habits swiftly -- you might even consider what I do -- pull the ink cartridge out of your printer, throw it in the trash or put in a time-locked safe. Head down to the internet cafe only when you think a PDF can't do the trick. At 20 cents a page it really makes you think not just twice, but three or four times about hitting that print button -- it certainly helped me build my "less-paper" office.

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