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by Mike Zazaian November 27, 2006 - 3:53pm, 1 Comment

Rolls of recycled paper

Xerox is developing a new paper that erases itself after 16 hours, and could substantially cut down on commercial paper waste.

According to the New York Times, chemists at Xerox are working alongside Brinda Dalal, an anthropologist, to develop a type of paper that can be re-used a virtually unlimited number of times. The most current prototype of the erasable paper bears a slight yellowish tint, and uses light exposure rather than ink to produce purple-ish, low-resolution images.

The efforts come as a result of Dalal’s findings that offices are increasingly using paper simply to display rather than store information. As concluded in one of Dalal’s studies, the average office worker in the United States prints approximately 1,200 pages per month, 44.5 percent of which are daily-use documents such as e-mails or memos. Dalal also found that of all the paper used 21 percent of it is returned to the recycling bin on the same day.

We were surprised by our results, said Dalal. Nobody looks at the ephemeral information going through people’s waste baskets.

Xerox researchers attribute the paper’s effect to chemical compounds that change color when exposed to a specific wavelength of light. The effects of the light exposure then gradually fade at the end of a 16 to 24 hour period, returning the paper to its original, blank state. The compounds also reset when the paper is exposed to heat.

While current prototypes of the paper have been re-used as many as fifty times without losing their self-erasing effect, Xerox says that there’s virtually no cap on the usage of a single piece of paper. And with a projected price of only two or three times more than a standard sheet of copy paper, companies stand to save a substantial amount of money while also deterring the deforestation caused by such usage.

But even with a working prototype in hand, Xerox hasn’t decided whether the self-erasing paper will be commercialized. With the prospect of e-readers and electronic paper finding their way to mass production in the near future, an investment in conventional paper could be a shaky one. Paul Saffo, who has acted as a consultant to Xerox during the project, fears that the new technology might be too little, too late:

I worry that this would be like coming out with Super 8 just before the video camera, said Saffo. This would have been a bigger deal 10 years ago. These days there’s so much getting read online I wonder if time hasn’t passed this by.