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Who’s More Wasteful: The Average American Or Our Government?

Last updated 03/21/2024 by

Theresa Cummings
It’s no secret that industries are having trouble keeping up with the rapid pace of technological and environmental developments. What may be a surprise is how far behind the U.S. government has fallen, especially where wasting paper is concerned. This is especially ironic given that the “go green” movement actually began in 1948 when the federal government first started tackling water pollution.

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The EPA and Environmentalism

The federal government has long been a huge factor in the promotion of environmentalism: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created in 1970 with the express purpose of consolidating federal research, monitoring, standard-setting and enforcement activities under the umbrella of a single agency. Nonetheless, the federal government wasted more than $440 million of the $1.3 billion spent in printing costs for 2009, according to That year, federal employees printed an average of 30 pages during each working day, totaling 7,200 pages per employee annually. A whopping 92 percent of federal employees claim that they print out far more documents than they need, discarding 35 percent of all the paper they print out.
Figures like this are understandably viewed with alarm, especially among Millennials. With results provided exclusively to MSNBC, The Clinton Global Initiative and Microsoft conducted a poll which revealed that Millennials (born between 1982 and 2000) say they are more focused on the environment than their parents’ generation: 76 percent to 24 percent. Yet young federal employees are just as wasteful as their Baby Boomer counterparts, reports.

Waste Among Federal Employees

One reason for all the waste? The need for paper copies: 57 percent of respondents claimed they needed to obtain signatures on paper documents, 54 percent said they needed paper copies for sharing and review during meetings, while 51 percent claimed they needed hard copies of documents for co-workers.
Nonetheless, 64 percent of respondents said they could print less and still provide the documentation they needed. In fact, 69 percent — more than two-thirds of respondents, said paper trails could be effectively converted to digital trails, and an even larger 78 percent responded that accessing and referencing digital documents would be easier.
The potential savings are tremendous: a report issued by Lexmark claimed that smarter policies could save a hefty $440 million dollars annually — nearly enough to cover the entire cost of printing each year ($492.8 million). A startling amount of waste occurs in the Office of Personnel Management, whose 600 employees process retirement papers for federal government workers — by hand, and almost entirely with paper documents. Working underground, the agency manages more than 28,000 file cabinets stuffed with paper records. Another example: failed hand-held computers employed by the Census Bureau, which was forced to go back to using paper surveys at a cost of $3 billion dollars.
Over the past 30 years, various branches of the government have spent more than $100 million dollars in unsuccessful attempts to bring personnel files into the 21st century. As a result, federal employees frequently must wait months to receive their full benefits checks. The Obama Administration has had some success in making the agency run faster — by paying for 200 more workers over the past five years to sort documents by hand. Meanwhile, processing costs per claim have increased from $82 to $108, largely due to the increase in total spending for the retirement system (to $55.8 million dollars).

Potential Paper Recycling Savings

These figures are even more alarming in light of the potential savings that can be realized by recycling. According to, the amount of wood and paper discarded each year in this country could heat 50,000,000 homes for 20 years. Each ton of recycled paper saves 3.5 cubic yards of landfill space, along with 17 30-foot trees, 7,000 gallons of water, 380 gallons of oil and 4100-kilowatt hours of energy, while eliminating 60 pounds of air pollutants. It might be time to rethink the process of maintaining federal documents, and overall policies toward recycling and waste among the general population.
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