Is printing paper documents always an environmental ‘no no’. This is a question being asked as part of a debate spurred by Google’s Paperless 2013 campaign, which is urging people to go paperless this year by embracing the cloud to view documents, instead of printing them off.

Evidence against the campaign’s philosophy includes a 2010 study from a Stanford University graduate, which suggests that if you take approximately six minutes to read a two-page electronic document, you’ll consume around 153.3.kJ of energy – roughly the same as the 146.5 kJ required to produce a sheet of paper printed on both sides.

So is it really so much better to choose electronic/online instead of paper documents? Especially if you’re recycling the paper you use?

The truth, as you’ve probably guessed, is never that simple. The study above was based on the energy consumption rates of desktop computers, while most people these days are switching to less power-hungry laptops, tablets and smartphones. Also, in the real world, we tend to have our devices switched on for much of the time anyway, so the incremental environmental cost of viewing an extra page is probably negligible.

The case for paper being the lesser evil might be stronger if everyone was sharing printed documents and then recycling them afterwards, reducing the total volume of paper we waste. But unfortunately few people are conscientious enough to maximise the use of every sheet they print off.

The truth is, while you might be able to argue that a single user printing off the occasional short paper document is probably not any more environmentally damaging than if they were viewing the same document online, this argument does not stand up in larger, enterprise settings.

If you have hundreds of users printing off dozens of documents, daily – many of which may be lengthy reports – then it certainly starts to become difficult to argue that paper is the same as paperless viewing, environmentally speaking.

Document management experts argue that the real challenge for electronic documents is how to make them a real pleasure to use, so that office workers are weaned off their addiction to paper!

Most people prefer paper because it’s convenient, accessible and portable. You can carry paper documents with you, look at them virtually anywhere, make notes on them and you don’t have to waste time logging on or waiting for a device to ‘boot up’ in order to view them.

But technology is improving fast and it’s now possible to get a similar experience using electronic documents – while enjoying some desirable additional benefits.

As discussed above, many people are now adopting highly portable tablets, smartphones and e-readers, which you can carry around easily and come with plenty of battery life, allowing access to potentially thousands of electronic documents wherever you go.

Screen technology for many devices is approaching a paper-like quality, making on screen documents easy to see and read, and document management systems make it easy to share, review and annotate documents, while ensuring everyone (that needs to) is always looking at the correct version – you have a ‘single version of the truth’ incorporating everyone’s ideas and comments.

You can also cross-reference related online content using hyperlinks, making it so much more powerful than paper. And if all your documents are held in the cloud or accessible remotely from the company network, you no longer need to worry about which documents you need to take with you if you’re planning a trip away from your desk. Everything’s there via whatever device you’re using.

However, one thing that sometimes gets forgotten when people talk about the virtues of electronic documents is the environmental cost – over and above electricity use – of the underlying hardware they are stored on – in its manufacture, disposal, and so on.

Organisations need to behave responsibly, and not automatically throw away ‘older’ technology but find ways to extend its life – by choosing new applications that will run on multiple hardware platforms and older operating systems, for example, rather than doing a hardware refresh on the back of every major software implementation.

And of course we all have a responsibility to reduce power consumption by doing things such as setting shorter standby settings and not leaving WIFI and computing equipment permanently switched on in the office or at home. This should go hand-in-hand with printing less.

So to answer the original question: printing paper documents is not always an ‘evil’ – in moderation . But if turning to online/electronic documents can make you feel a little more virtuous… and a lot more productive, then why wouldn’t you do it?