Paper consumption has always been a hot topic in the larger context of minimizing waste, especially in the United States, where we use an estimated 69 million tons of paper per year.

There’s no question that we, as a country, waste literally tons of paper sending and receiving mail that contains information better suited to digital distribution. Certain companies and business sectors are beginning to take steps towards eliminating this colossal waste of time, product, and energy, while others seem to be stuck in archaic, paper-based business models.

In 2012, the U.S. actually managed to reach a recycling rate of 65% for paper products. Though this is certainly an impressive step, it still leaves a significant amount of room for improvement. Recycling is a partial solution to our paper problem, but reducing and ultimately eliminating paper is a complete one — one that companies need to start seriously considering.

First Steps

Several sectors have already taken the lead in the growing “paperless” movement. Surprisingly, the federal government is one of them — specifically, the IRS, a branch that requires a famously excessive amount of forms and files. Electronic filing options have minimized the obnoxious amount of paper required to do taxes, and the IRS is taking measures to encourage moving the tax filing process from physical paper forms to online ones.

Another industry that’s quickly going paperless is real estate. There’s been a significant dip in print newspapers’ real estate ad revenues, which, according to State of the Media, fell from $19.6 billion in 2000 to just $4.7 billion in 2012.

With hugely popular websites like Trulia, Zillow, and Streeteasy having burst onto the scene, the Internet is now clearly the optimal platform for real estate advertising. In turn, the listings that have long populated the classified section of our local newspapers are being virtually eradicated.

Unsurprisingly, these industries that tend to waste the most paper are the ones that have been taking the first strides towards using less, hopefully setting an example for other paper-wasting industries and sectors of business.

Next Steps

So who’s still tossing their profits in the waste bin? The answer starts with banks, credit card companies, and law firms that still largely operate on paper-based business models, and it may be a while before these industries start really thinking about going paperless.

According to American Banker, financial institutions like JP Morgan Chase actually increased paper use by 55% in 2011, and paper consumption for the top ten global banks has also been steadily increasing.

Banks send an estimated 50 billion pieces of actual mail out to Americans every year, and although some institutions have made a notable effort to move activity online or into the mobile world, the industry as a whole has a long way to go.

Paperless Innovations

There is hope, though, that it won’t be too long before we completely cut paper out of the business equation. Even small innovations like electronic signatures — coming from companies like HelloSign and DocuSign — eliminate the simple, annoying process of printing, signing, and faxing multi-sheet forms.

More popular platforms like Trello and Google Docs help companies eliminate the sharing physical documents, while apps like Square eliminate paper receipts by accepting customer payments through a tablet or smartphone (we’re still waiting on that smartwatch app). And there’s Dropbox, of course, which frees up otherwise wasted storage space and has turned file sharing into a digital operation.

Companies that utilize these platforms will make the transition into a paperless lifestyle simple and painless, cutting costs and boosting profits along the way. So what are you waiting for? The next thing you toss in the waste bin might as well be the printer.