Professors need to re-evaluate classroom policies to reduce paper waste

Ashka Dighe

Each introduction to chemistry class kills approximately five trees. A tree produces between 10,000 and 20,000 sheets of paper, and considering most of my textbooks are between 200 and 400 pages, this amounts to approximately 50 textbooks per tree. Even if every student at UT bought only one normal-sized textbook each semester, that would still cost us 803 trees a semester.

Professors should cut down on paper waste by encouraging e-books, using digitized course packs and looking into paperless exams. Some professors prohibit students from using laptops, phones or tablets during class which forces students to purchase printed texts. The argument that it could distract students is valid, but the solution to that is for students to restrain themselves and focus instead of wasting paper.

Every year, approximately four million trees are cut down for paper worldwide. In 2014 the US produced 48.4 million tons of pulp, making it the top pulp producer in the world. This has major consequences for the environment, and it costs more for students to purchase printed books than digitized versions. Yet, many professors would rather require students to purchase course packs and hard copies of textbooks than allow them to use laptops, tablets, or smartphones in classrooms.

Chemistry professor Paul McCord does not use the course pack that many other professors do because using technology is more convenient and so much paper is wasted in each course pack. He has made his class completely paperless except for exams by building his own website and making all files available through Canvas.

“I saw how much paper we were going through” McCord explained. “Until the early 2000’s we had our own homework service, and we printed every single homework assignment. I was told before we went electronic (the Chemistry Department’s) printing cost was around $30,000 per year.” According to McCord’s calculation, in the 2000’s they printed approximately 300,000 sheets of paper per semester and now they have reduced that amount by 75 percent to approximately 75,000 sheets per semester. Thankfully, UT has come a long way in reducing its paper usage, but there is still a lot that can be done.

Despite advancements in technologies and the fact that UT offers classes online, a reliable method to digitise exams has yet not been created. McCord said that we are the flagship university of the state of Texas but “we are still pigeonholed into using bubble sheets for our exams, which is just a shame.” McCord calculated that the Chemistry Department alone uses approximately 60,000 sheets of paper each semester to administer exams.

An alternate method of conducting exams could look like exams administered in online classes using a proctoring service. With new technologies, it is possible to have computer screens recorded for the duration of the exam to ensure academic honesty and avoid printing exams.

“A university of this size is steeped in its ways,” explains McCord. But with rising temperatures and a deteriorating Earth, it is time for UT to take bigger steps towards protecting the environment.

It is difficult for large institutions to change, but we can start with small steps, such as avoiding printed copies of textbooks when possible and innovating our exam process. Professors should strive to provide all reading assignments and homework electronically, and find an alternate method of administering quizzes and exams in order to reduce the amount of paper used at UT. By incorporating more technology in classrooms instead of using hard copies of textbooks and printouts, professors can make a significant step toward conserving the environment.

Dighe is a Plan II and Neuroscience sophomore from Houston.