Toshiba is pushing re-writable paper that it claims can be erased and reprinted at least 500 times.
The paper - actually thermo-sensitive sheet-plastic - requires a special printer, the B-SX8R, which relies on a heat-sensitive pigment in the ink. If heated above 180 degrees centigrade (356 degrees Fahrenheit) it goes black, but if held at between 130C and 170C it turns white again.
"The technology is not new," admitted Mike Keane, who heads Toshiba TEC Europe's industrial printer group which is handling the re-writable printer. But he said this is the first time that it’s been applied in this form. "You can take a printed sheet out, put it straight back in and reprint on it - the printer erases before printing," he said. But he added, "It will never be for letters and so on. You have to be sure you can recycle the material."
He said that in Japan, the plastic paper is already being used in closed-loop processes, such as pick-lists in a warehouse or build instructions on a production line, where a printed sheet is only needed for a short time and is then redundant, and where the printer's 300dpi resolution is adequate.
Toshiba said that, as well as the rewritable process reducing paper consumption and shredding, manufacturing and recycling the plastic sheets generates much less CO2 than manufacturing and recycling paper.
Of course, copier paper is used for lots of purposes that don't need long-term permanence, as the recycling bin in any office will show. Erasable paper could be much better than an electronic book for things such as newspapers, too - it is lighter and easier to read, and it requires nothing more than ambient light. However, today's technology is clearly a long, long way from that goal.
And this is not Toshiba's first re-usable print process. Three years ago it introduced an erasable toner called e-blue that can be used with ordinary paper in standard laser printers. Once a piece of printed paper is finished with, it can be erased and re-used up to five times.
The company says that a number of its own divisions are using e-blue for things such as draft documents, and have cut their purchases of copier paper by 40 percent as a result. Many other Japanese corporations use it too, including NTT, which cites a 60 percent cut in paper usage. However, e-blue requires a separate bulk erasing machine - basically, an oven - and of course not everyone wants to print in blue.
While the new rewritable process answers some of those objections, it introduces new ones too, starting with the plastic paper being around £5 a sheet. That's fine if you do indeed use each sheet 500 times, but what if a sheet is filed, scribbled on in ballpoint instead of one of Toshiba's special erasable marker pens, or damaged by folding?
The new paper is also sensitive to heat and UV light, and the print is actually grey rather than black. Power consumption is significant too, with the erasing element having an 800W heater, and the printer won't be cheap, at around £5,000, as and when it reaches the European market.
Plus, as an environmental expert pointed out, plastic is a mainly non-renewable resource, whereas paper genuinely does grow on trees.
Keane acknowledged that while rewritable paper has been successful in corporate Japan, where companies and the government see it as a way of meeting their waste reduction obligations under ISO14001 and the Kyoto Protocol, the mindset is very different in corporate Europe. Indeed, he said that may be why e-blue hasn't been launched here yet, and why it is only just exploring avenues for the B-SX8R.