Christian M. 7 min read

From paper to pixels: Waste trends in the digital age

The ‘digital transformation’ is revolutionising how we live and work, leading to significant changes in waste generation and management. For example, businesses are simultaneously generating less waste by going paperless yet producing unprecedented volumes of electronic waste.

In this article, we explain how these technological changes affect each relevant waste stream and ultimately try to answer whether this shift is helping us reach “net-zero waste” or simply creating a bigger waste problem.

💡 Key takeaways:

  • Less paper waste: The digital transformation reduces paper, printing supplies and media.
  • Paperless tech: Key innovations include e-contracts, electronic invoicing and cryptographic QR codes.
  • Electronic wastes: The rise in electronic waste from the transformation presents new challenges for waste management.

What is the ‘digital transformation’?

The ‘digital transformation’ is a fundamental shift in the technologies used by organisations to improve their operations, business models, and customer experiences.

Instead of relying on slow and disjointed analogue tools like pen and paper, physical files and folders and CDs and disks, businesses are increasingly using digital tools like Microsoft Office, cloud storage services, and social media to perform the same tasks exponentially more efficiently.

Here are 10 examples of typical business activities that a digital process has completely overhauled and how it has affected the waste generated by each process:

Analogue eraDigital eraEffect on waste
Marketing and adsPrint ads, flyers, billboardsDigital ads, social media, email marketingReduced paper and material waste
CommunicationsMemos, printed notices, face-to-face meetingsEmails, instant messaging, video conferencingReduced paper waste, less waste from travel
Data storage and backupPhysical storage media (tapes, disks), printed documentsCloud storage, digital backupsReduced physical storage media waste, less paper used
Payment processingPaper checks, cash transactionsElectronic payments, online transactionsReduced paper waste, more efficient transactions
Customer serviceIn-person visits, phone calls, paper feedback formsLive chat, email support, digital feedback formsReduced paper waste, more efficient communication
Employee trainingPrinted manuals, physical workshopsOnline tutorials, digital training modulesReduced paper waste, more flexible learning options
Event ticketingPhysical tickets, printed programsDigital tickets (e-tickets), online event programsReduced paper waste, more convenient for attendees
Product catalogsPrinted catalogs, brochuresDigital catalogs, online brochuresReduced paper waste, easier updates and distribution
Order fulfillmentPaper order forms, manual inventory trackingOnline order forms, automated inventory management systemsReduced paper waste, more accurate and efficient processing

Not only has business become more convenient, but the ‘digital transformation’ has significantly changed waste patterns, especially the generation of paper waste. However, new types of waste have also arisen from this process.

Waste reduction

The ‘digital transformation’ is turning the UK into a paperless economy, meaning all waste types associated with office paper usage are decreasing dramatically:

Paper waste: The shift to digital documents and communications significantly reduces the need for physical paper, reducing the demand for raw inputs like trees, water and energy due to the decreasing amount of paper waste. This ultimately makes digitisation into a major waste reduction strategy.

Printing supplies: Less printing reduces the use of ink cartridges, toners, and other printing supplies, which are often difficult to recycle. The increasing use of screens for advertisements and noticeboards means fewer printed posters and notices.

Physical media waste: The rise of digital media, such as e-books, online newspapers, and streaming services, has reduced the production and disposal of physical books, magazines, CDs, DVDs, and other media.

Food packaging waste: Superfast internet speeds enable many to do much of their work from home or without having to commute, reducing the amount of disposable waste generated from purchasing takeaway food, such as disposable coffee cup waste.

Going paperless

The transition from paper-based to digital businesses is popularly called “going paperless” and is often quoted in waste minimisation and waste prevention case studies, having yielded impressive results.

For example, adopting online banking and electronic statements has drastically reduced the need for physical paperwork. Healthcare has seen a shift to electronic health records, which improve efficiency and reduce the volume of paper files. Government services have also embraced digitalisation, with many forms and documents now available and submittable online, streamlining processes and cutting down on paper use.

Reducing paper usage means fewer trees are cut down, preserving forests and biodiversity. It also decreases the energy and water used in paper production and recycling, reducing the environmental footprint. Also, going entirely paperless reduces the need for paper waste segregation at the office and will inevitably reduce any landfill tax fees your business is paying from paper that accidentally ends up in the general waste bin.

💡 Cost savings: 59% of UK businesses that went paperless achieved a full return on investment in less than 12 months, and 84% achieved payback in less than 18 months. Source: Docuphase


E-paperwork refers to electronic versions of documents that serve as evidence or confirmation of transactions, agreements, or records, such as contractual and billing information. In the UK, these digital proofs, such as e-contracts, electronic proforma invoices and digital receipts, are increasing as businesses seek more efficient (and environmentally friendly) ways to manage their operations.

Digital receipts and invoicing have become increasingly popular in the UK, with many businesses transitioning to electronic billing to reduce paper usage and improve efficiency. The same applies to quotations, proformas and other transactional paperwork.

💡 Online sales: In 2021, 34.5% of retail businesses in the UK engaged in online sales, using digital proofs such as digital invoices and receipts.

QR Codes

QR codes look simple yet are sophisticated, cryptographic tech innovations accelerating the move towards a paperless economy. Their convenience (you can display it from any screen) and non-fungibility (they cannot be duplicated or counterfeited) make them perfect for replacing physical tickets and passes for events, transportation, and other services.

💡 COVID adoption: In the UK, QR code adoption for payments increased significantly during the pandemic, rising from 35.53% in mid-2020 to 83% of surveyed consumers by the end of 2021. While aimed at reducing contagion, the effects of going paperless were significant.

Digital storage

Digital storage solutions are replacing physical filing systems in the UK, leading to reduced paper consumption and increased data security. Initially, local hosting on hard drives was the norm, but the shift towards digital storage in the UK is increasingly leaning towards cloud-based solutions due to their scalability, accessibility, and cost-effectiveness.

💡 It’s estimated that UK businesses could save up to £1.3 billion annually by adopting paperless document management systems.

E-books and digital media

The release of the Amazon Kindle in 2007 marked a definitive shift towards e-books and digital media in the UK which has significantly impacted the publishing industry. In 2023, eBooks accounted for 34% of book sales in the UK, a substantial increase in 14 years of existence.

This transition not only reflects changing consumer preferences for convenience and accessibility but also aligns with environmental sustainability efforts by reducing paper waste and the resources needed for physical book production and distribution.

The dark side of digital transformation

However, the digital transformation is not all rainbows and unicorns. Despite making businesses significantly more efficient, they’re also introducing new types of problematic waste exclusive to the digital era: electronic and battery waste.

The rise of electronic waste

The ‘digital transformation’ is the primary driver for demand for electronic goods. This demand keeps increasing exponentially as we enter the era of the Internet of Things (IoT) where everything from kitchen devices to lighting is being managed digitally.

Additionally, the acceleration in hardware development means that devices are becoming obsolete more rapidly than ever, as exponential improvements in chips and user interfaces (e.g. screens, controls) require users to switch to new generations faster to keep up to date. This is especially true for businesses that rely on the latest technology to compete in their fields.

This leads to colossal amounts of valuable electronic and battery waste, which the UK currently struggles to manage with hundreds of thousands of devices ending up in landfills, with no end in sight. Read our detailed write-up on commercial electronic waste recycling to learn more.

Carbon emissions

Despite emissions reductions from efficiency improvements across global supply chains, running digital infrastructure, including data centres and network systems, requires significant electricity. In 2022, the sector is estimated to have consumed 240-340 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity, or about 1-2% of global electricity!

This wouldn’t be an issue if the world ran on renewable or other low-carbon sources of electricity like nuclear energy, but the reality is that a significant proportion of the global electricity supply still comes from burning fossil fuels. So despite improvements in efficiency and reductions in paper and other wastes, the ‘digital transformation’ does have a carbon footprint associated with it.

💡 An endless debate: Many argue that the reduction in emissions from the ‘digital transformation’ far outweighs the emissions increase from running the infrastructure; it’s just nearly impossible to quantify.

Digital transformation: More or less waste?

So, going back to the central question, is the ‘digital transformation’ solving or worsening the UK’s waste woes? We think that the impact is principally positive but not without significant caveats and uncertainties.

Looking at it from the narrow lens of current waste generation, less paper, media and single-use food and beverage waste (from commuting) is certainly positive. Even with the issue of huge volumes of electronic waste and lack of recycling infrastructure, the expectation is that these will rapidly develop as e-waste contains a lot of valuable material, so there are financial incentives.

However, when looking at the ‘digital transformation’ as a cultural change with deep changes to business habits and beliefs, the issue becomes impossible to answer. Is social media affecting the rate at which we have kids (and therefore produce more or less waste)? Will virtual reality technologies make us forget about ‘reality’ like in the famous Pixar movie “Wall-E”? Or perhaps AI will accelerate the rate development of commercial recycling technology to the point that any negatives are a pointless discussion?

Basically, it’s anyone’s guess, so all we can do is remain optimistic and focused on solving today’s issues. Save money now on your commercial waste collection services by comparing business waste quotes with us. Then, use any savings to work on adhering to the waste hierarchy and embrace the circular economy.

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