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The Green Machine

The environmental impact of computer operations

From "VS Workshop",  Access to Wang, April 1991
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April is Earth Month, and in honor of that fact I would like to devote space this month and next to a discussion of the environmental impact of data processing operations. Computer operations are large consumers of paper and electrical power, and computer systems have a big impact on the individuals that use them. Systems professionals like us can help minimize resource usage through choices within our control.

I have identified several goals within the reach of most computer operations, with several possible strategies for achieving those goals. This month I'll cover reducing paper use, with electrical power and human factors next month.

Goal #1: Reduce paper waste

Strategy #1: The best report is the one you don't print. Many shops have discovered that it is not necessary to print reports routinely if end users are given alternatives to printing. These options include print file display programs, distribution by electronic mail, and the use of microfiche service bureaus.

A simple way of encouraging on-screen review of reports is to "distribute" reports by placing copies of the print file in the users's spool library and providing a print file display program to review these files. Some of these programs are USERAIDS, can be found on most VS systems. The better programs (DISPRINT, DISPMANY, etc.) also allow users to scratch print files that are no longer needed. Commercial print file utilities are also available, and often provide better features and enhanced security.

A step beyond print file management programs is the use of Wang OFFICE or other electronic mail systems to perform this distribution. OFFICE is a particularly good choice, since it is capable of creating packages containing any type of file and routing those packages to one or more users. The distribution processes can be controlled from a program through use of the OFFICE Application Programmer Interface (API) routines, covered by Bill Branson's excellent series in this magazine. Report routings could even be enhanced with explanatory messages attached to the package.

If you don't have an electronic mail system or need to distribute to a larger area, consider dial-up services such as Delphi, Compuserve, MCI Mail, Western Union, or others. These services allow you to use the vendor's network for report distribution by placing files in mailboxes accessible to remote users. Some services accept a variety of document and file formats as input, delivering the information in one of several forms - as a fax transmission, data file, telex, document, or electronic mail message - as output. Many of these services support the teletype (TTY) and 2780 batch communications protocols typically found on the VS, in addition to common asynchronous protocols (Kermit, YMODEM, XMODEM, etc.) used most often by PCs.

If you have large reports for internal distribution, consider Computer Output to Microfiche (COM) services. The COM process converts print files directly to microfiche, bypassing the printing process. While less convenient for some uses, microfiche reports are permanent and cheap to duplicate. With their light weight, microfiche can be sent to remote users through the mail.

COM services are available from service bureaus in your area, with typical turnaround of two days to a week. Input requirements vary, but most require IBM print files on IBM label tapes, so you will probably need a 9-track reel tape drive and software to convert VS print files to IBM print files. (The PRINTVS VSAID is a good choice for this need, since it combines the conversion and tape copy processes into one step.)

Strategy #2: Reduce the bulk of your consumption. By bulk I am referring to the physical area of the sheet used for printing. This can be achieved by reducing the size of the sheet, putting more lines on the page, using sheet stock instead of continuous forms, printing on both sides of the paper, and reusing old reports as scratch paper. All of these options are a compromise, allowing reports to be printed where needed but still reducing the amount of paper used.

Reducing the size of the size of the sheet can be an easy way to reduce your paper consumption immediately. Many paper suppliers stock 8-1/2" x 14-7/8" continuous-form computer paper. If your line printer is capable of eight vertical lines per inch (the normal measurement is six lines per inch), this paper size will allow you to print the same number of lines in a shorter area. This paper size also fits into legal-size file cabinets, and the number of lines per page in the reports remains the same - meaning line counts do not have to be modified. Unfortunately, this is still an unusual paper size and carries a premium price due to the additional warehousing costs.

Another approach is to use standard 11" x 14-7/8" paper and increase the number of printed lines per page. This conversion is usually harder than it should be, since most software contains hard-coded line counts that must be modified; if only all software used the optional LINES usage constant supplied by the operating system. (Programmers: are you listening?)

I applied this principle in a radical way by setting up my PC printer to print two 132-column pages within a logical sheet size of 8-1/2" x 5-1/2" - half a sheet of paper. The font size is 17 pitch, with twelve vertical lines per inch. I used a subscript font to reduce the height of the characters, preventing overlap and increasing legibility. Two report pages fit neatly on a single sheet of paper, making filing a snap. (Drop me a line if you're interested in a copy of the printer control codes for this trick.)

Another form of paper waste is the perforations required by pinÄfeed printers. On 9-1/2" x 11" stock - the kind used by most PC printers - the sprocket area covers about ten percent of the total area. Obviously, sheet-fed printers eliminate this waste. Besides laser printers a growing number of desk-top printers use sheet stock.

Printers capable of duplex printing (printing on both sides) take on the problem in a new way. Only a handful of laser printers and LED printers that have this capability now. It is unclear how these printers could work in most VS shops, since reports with an odd number of pages must advance an additional sheet before printing the next report. Since the VS operating system does not yet recognize this function, full use of such printers may have to wait.

Finally, you can reduce the need to purchase additional paper by reusing old reports for scratch paper. Be sure that everyone understands the security implications of this reuse, though; it's embarrassing to see your youngster's pre-school drawings coming home on the back of last month's executive briefing!

Goal #2: Recycle paper effectively

Strategy #1: Use white paper for all uses. Computer paper with printed bars is far less desirable to recyclers, and the pulp grade is inferior. Crisp, white stock printed with modern printers yields legible, professional reports and allows easier recycling. The same white dual-purpose paper can be used for laser printers and copiers.

Strategy #2: Separate types of paper. Assuming you must have a variety of stocks, be sure to provide clearly-marked containers for each. Colored stock, index cards, computer paper, and newsprint must usually be separated from other types of stock.

Strategy #3: Provide appropriate areas for recycling. Decide on the location and size of the containers for each type of paper to be recycled. It's best if these containers are close to primary paper users or in a central location - such as the printer room. Some organizations provide small storage boxes for personal use until there is enough to visit the recycling bin.

Strategy #4: Ensure the security of your recycling. Nothing shoots down a recycling plan faster than management's unease with the disposal of potentially confidential information. Sensitive materials are usually shredded or otherwise disposed of carefully, but even ordinary reports could be of use to your competition. Recycling offers an improvement in security over throwing those reports into the dumpster, since used materials can be securely stored and delivered to a recycler directly. Discuss these issues with your recycling source.

Happy birthday?

This column marks the end of my fifth year as an Access writer. The direction and scope of these writings have followed many personal interests through the months. I hope these ramblings have been as interesting and challenging to you as they have for me. I look forward to continuing in the months to come.

Next month: Taming the power demons and other challenges.

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Copyright © 1991 Dennis S. Barnes
Reprints of this article are permitted without notification if the source of the information is clearly identified