One of the coolest things about William McDonough and Michael Braungart's Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (in my opinion, anyway) was the book itself, which was made from a polymer that allowed all of it to be erased and reused. Xerox, in partnership with Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), is working on an "erasable paper" for use in copy machines that holds print for 16 hours, and then can go right back into the machine for reuse. The project is, in part, a response to findings showing that almost half of the documents an average worker prints are for single use -- most of them end up in the recycling bin the same day (if not in the trash). The project is still in the very early stages, according to a New York Times article:
Xerox has not yet decided whether it will commercialize its technology, Mr. Shrader said, but the goal is to create a system where the specially coated paper costs between two and three times standard copier paper, making the total cost of the system substantially less than conventional paper when paper is reused repeatedly.
The company said the precise nature of the technology was proprietary and that Xerox had applied for a number of related patents covering the invention. The researchers describe the invention as being based on compounds that can change color when they absorb a certain wavelength of light, but can then gradually revert to their original appearance. The compounds currently self-erase in about 16 to 24 hours, or can be erased immediately when heated.
The challenge Xerox faces is to find a market for a new paper printing technology in an era when information is increasingly being viewed and read on electronic displays of all types.
If we can really make the move to a paperless office, that would be ideal; if that doesn't happen in the next few years (and, remember, the paperless office has been supposedly been just around the corner for years), then a technology like this seems like the next best thing. Like the book, people like to read things on paper -- there's something about the physical experience. That may change as electronic displays get more sophisticated, but it's good to know that technology like this is also in development.