In-depth

Printers: It’s not easy being green

Office printers gobble up consumables – and electricity – but are still a necessity. These are some of the challenges of printing in a responsible, efficient way and how to overcome them.

The myth of the paperless office died long ago. Sometimes it seems that computers exist only to promote the continuation of the paper business. It’s not even as if we need all of these hard copies – a 2010 survey suggested that two-thirds of all office printouts were immediately discarded – yet printing remains a core capability for most businesses.

That’s partly because business records are primarily kept on paper. The UK requires certain types of document to be stored for seven years, and anecdotes abound of some inspector wanting to see original printouts, where the laser toner is starting to crack off the page, accompanied by fading highlighter marks and the ballpoint signatures of long-departed staff. The physical document, for them, is the expression of authenticity.

The problem with this is obvious. Physical documents are easily lost, damaged or destroyed: if the same information were stored digitally, you’d certainly be keeping multiple backups of it. Nor is it at all efficient to store paper, compared to archiving bytes in the cloud or on some sort of NAS appliance. 

There are practical reasons, then, as well as environmental ones, to embrace paper to the minimum possible extent and adopt a “green” printing policy. The question is: what would that look like? How can you show a commitment to reducing wasteful printing, without frustrating your staff with obstructive restrictions, or plastering every wall with motivational posters? 

You might be disappointed to learn that there’s no pre-packaged industry standard approach – no nice swing ticket to tell the world “we’re green”. This is perhaps just as well, because if such a certification existed, one can easily see small businesses investing far more money and effort than is really warranted in attaining it.

If that sounds like an exaggeration, let’s think about the sort of end-to-end printing solution that would be involved. In this context, at the very simplest level, in the very smallest of businesses, “end-to-end” basically means printing directly to the photocopier. Not a cheap multifunction printer with a wobbly lid, but a professional-grade machine with a maintenance contract, and probably an internet connection so it can call for help by itself.

To be clear, I call this device a photocopier purely because many of us, when looking at it, would instinctively assume that was its primary role. In reality, its capabilities will go far further. What’s more, thanks to the leasing model the providers like to use, they can offer you the latest, greenest, most energy-efficient model with a shockingly low cost per page. 

That may sound ideal, but be careful about what you sign up to or the contract terms could end up negating the savings. One client of mine agreed to replace their old copiers with a brand-new intelligent model, but didn’t notice that the small print obliged them to buy out their contracts for the removed hardware. They ended up blowing a huge hole in their IT budget – and they never even made full use of the new copier, as they found they didn’t get on with the proprietary support software. 

Before you lease anything, it’s also a good idea to look carefully at the bigger printers offered by your IT buying relationships. As I’ve implied, many modern photocopiers are in effect just rebadged printers, and vice versa – and the printer market may offer new technologies, such as high-capacity inkjets. 

Don’t think that price is the only difference between leasing and buying hardware, however. It might make sense to own and manage your own print services, but you’ll need to figure out which printer is the most efficient, in line with your budget and expected duty cycle, and then divide up people’s printing resources according to the balance between job sizes and their value to the business. Be prepared for this option making you quite unpopular.

There are plenty of other issues to deal with too – and they’re easy to overlook because they don’t immediately show up in the bottom line, nor on the piece of paper that emerges at the end of the process. Think about things like OS support, for example, and where and how your print server is going to be hosted. If you need a specialised printing job, such as a swish restaurant bill on non-standard headed crispy waffle-stamped paper, does a DIY approach guarantee acceptable results? Conversely, would your service provider get the job done, or would they wash their hands of the idea? (Yes, this example is taken from a real and very painful situation). 

Backseat driver

The most troublesome aspect of many printers, though, is the bit that has no physical substance at all: the driver. A printer driver isn’t just a simple translator that turns what you see onscreen into physical print, it becomes a core part of your whole workflow. It determines how you can print and how easily you can access your options. The driver integrates into your operating system, and an error or crash can cause untold problems.

Drivers can also make or break any aspirations to green printing. For example, it’s all well and good to buy a printer that can go into low-power mode when it’s not in use, but you need a driver that’s capable of maintaining a connection to a networked printer even when the hardware is in a modern deep-sleep state, and also of allowing the host PC to go to sleep when it wants to.

Another consideration is whether your chosen printer supports duplex printing. This is something of an abused term: in networking, duplex means that communication travels in both directions at once, which greatly speeds up operations. In printing, duplex means double-sided, but it certainly doesn’t mean that your documents will appear at twice the speed. Most smaller printers instead implement a sort of party trick with the paper-handling mechanism, turning each page over between prints, making the overall process much slower.

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To be fair, duplexing does save on paper (although the benefit won’t be as much as 50% unless every single document you print happens to have an even number of pages). However, it uses the same amount of ink as single-sided printing, and slightly more energy, as the printer has to stay awake for longer as it performs its paper-inversion routine. A bit more brainpower is required too – either at the workstation, print server or internal CPU – to flip the page images as needed so your even-numbered sides don’t all come out upside down.

The final problem with duplex is the sort of thing that would have Basil Fawlty handing out a damn good thrashing. The more complicated the paper-handling process, the greater the chance of a paper jam, and that’s the sort of thing that can turn printing documents into torture. If an already printed page gets dropped, you have to reprint both that one and its companion on the back, while hopefully still keeping all the other intended pages in the job in the right place. This is where a web-based print management portal can be a life-saver.

To save even more paper, most drivers also offer the option of shrinking multiple page images down onto a single piece of paper: “2-up” printout fits two pages at 50% magnification onto one sheet, and if you combine this with duplex printing you can cut your paper consumption by up to 75%. Push this to “4-up”, however, and things quickly get difficult to read; I expect there are people who print “8-up”, thereby saving quite a bit of both ink and paper, but I don’t envy them.

Testing out how all of this works is exceptionally hard for a prospective purchaser, as it involves three distinct contributions: the drivers themselves, your own network hardware – does it pass wake-on-LAN packets correctly, and are your devices configured to respond to them? – and the software build of your PCs and servers. The interaction between these entities is not something you’ll find printed on the outside of the box, and this is where the green intention can easily fall prey to the seductive fallback of just slamming everything together with USB. 

Ideally, you would start by defining for yourself what your best-behaved printer would look like – and remember, this doesn’t mean the same thing as “most feature-packed”. Our hypothetical model printer might be monochrome, with PostScript support for nice, efficiently rendered print jobs and a set of fonts whose licensing is clearly defined. It might have a simple browser-based management interface, showing the print queues and the jobs, as well as the state of the toner and drum. It might also communicate solely over IPv4 via a 100Mbits/sec Ethernet port, because it doesn’t need any more than that. You almost certainly won’t find a printer this straightforward, but it gives you a benchmark to work from.

Wireless printing

All things being equal, it normally makes sense to connect your printer to a wired network. Ethernet is highly reliable and more than fast enough, and printers don’t normally need to roam around the office. In practice, though, a lot of small businesses choose to connect over Wi-Fi. For example, the way they work might mean they want to print directly from mobile devices, rather than handling orders and messages on a conventional computer and sending them via a traditional print server. 

The good news (although it may not initially sound like it) is that Wi-Fi printing is normally quite crudely implemented. In particular, many such printers don’t support both wireless and wired operation at once – and that’s a good thing because it means it won’t act as a potentially exploitable bridge between your secure, operationally-vital LAN and your more free-and-easy wireless network. Ideally, if you’re going to be using a printer over Wi-Fi, you’d want to connect it to a standalone router that understands it might be used for printing traffic and that, therefore, has a sensible approach to allowing guests to sign in and access a set of controlled resources.

Be careful with routers that include their own print server, though. Remember how I was saying that drivers are quite capable of ruining your day? That can easily happen within the stack of communication protocols that make up the conversation between client device and printer. Ethernet and Wi-Fi are themselves built to recover from packets going missing, but not all printer drivers are so capable. Networking a cheap desktop printer through a port on your router is therefore a shakier proposition than it might at first seem: you’re better off with hardware that expects odd, interrupted, shifting Wi-Fi traffic.

Reducing wastage

If you want to reduce the amount of paper you consume, it is actually possible to recycle your old prints on-site: Epson’s PaperLab system ingests printed paper, reduces it to fluff then magically reconstitutes it into fresh, blank sheets of A4 or A3 that are ready for reuse. The PaperLab machinery is far too cumbersome to fit in a typical SMB’s office, however, and the running costs are frankly scary: if an enterprise can justify them, it’s likely to be solely on the basis that they come from a different part of the balance sheet to paper purchasing.

The more economical approach is to replace hard copies with PDFs wherever possible. Be warned, though, that, while there’s a rich variety of PDF making and viewing tools to choose from, there are also plenty of installers filled with bloatware, nagware and downright malware. And once you reach the point where you need to invest in server-based products for restricted, managed PDF creation and storage, the sales teams get involved, asking uncomfortable questions about the value of your data and the price becomes very much a moving target.

In short, it’s no surprise that, even in 2020, our toner fusers remain warm and our lumberjacks remain busy. The march of paper may be slowed by things such as centralised controls, printing quotas and internal accounting, but there’s no sign that it’s going to stop any time soon.

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