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Printing in a Pandemic

A person in a blue jacket and face mask holds a ream of paper in a classroom
Zoom fatigue is real, but there’s been a benefit to moving more aspects of our lives online: a decrease in printing and paper use on campus.

In September 2019, there was nearly always a student standing at the Pitt Print stations inside labs, residence halls and academic buildings. That fall, students printed more than 6.1 million sheets of paper, while Ricoh multifunction devices in Pitt offices processed a whopping 15.5 million sheets.

What a difference one year and a pandemic make: In fall 2020, students printed fewer than 1.5 million and departmental printers spit out fewer than 5.5 million sheets—a reduction of more than two-thirds.

The number of students using Pitt Print decreased by over 53% last semester, compared to the typical fall term. That’s not surprising when you think about it: Fewer students on campus and facility restrictions limiting the number of available print locations meant fewer jobs whizzing through the machines.

More illuminating is how much each on-campus student printed. The average user printed half as much this past fall (125 sheets), compared to fall 2019 (250 sheets). In a normal term, about 1.5% of students exceed their Pitt Print quota of up to 900 sheets; in the fall 2020 term, just 0.3% did so.

Go the extra mile

Think you can reduce your paper use even more? Pitt IT has 10 tips for you. Plus, take a look at other campus initiatives to boost sustainability at Pitt.

“Pitt Print is an important service for our students, and we expect that will always be the case,” said Jeff Rhoades, 24/7 IT Help Desk manager. “But it’s also exciting to see the University community utilizing digital alternatives that help them to work more efficiently and effectively. It’s clear that many of the ways we have been using technology during the pandemic will become the norm moving forward.”

Pandemic printing habits didn’t just change for students. With most offices working remotely, most departmental printers went unused. Departments also sent fewer jobs to University Printing Services, resulting in a 73% reduction in postcards, posters, newsletters, flyers, class materials and other items.

The question Pitt’s Information Technology and Office of Sustainability are now exploring is whether changes in printing behavior are likely to continue once things return to normal.

Pandemic phenomenon or permanent habit?

Even before the pandemic, printing had steadily been decreasing for many years as students and professors both became more comfortable with educational technologies such as Canvas and Turnitin, not to mention email and social media platforms. But Flex@Pitt pushed that trend into overdrive. Instructors accepted assignments and papers electronically, posted editable worksheets that could be completed digitally and provided class materials that students could download and mark up electronically.

Andrius Petrauskas, a senior civil engineering major who has worked in the Student Computing Labs for four years, has definitely seen a decrease in printing with less in-person activity. “Because everyone is remote, they are turning to online alternatives, instead of printing everything out,” Petrauskas said. “Students are still printing things like syllabi or lab manuals—things they need to refer to a lot—but they aren’t printing out papers, homework assignments or readings."

Jacob Beaudway, a first-year neuroscience major, agreed. “I printed out things like lab worksheets and study guides that I wanted to look at while I was connected to my classes. I also printed out things that I wanted to take notes on,” he said.

Units beyond the classroom have also developed digital workflows to accommodate remote operations. The eSignature Service (DocuSign) and Pitt Worx enable online transactions, while Electronic Lab Notebooks (LabArchives) and Microsoft Teams facilitate virtual collaboration. Meanwhile, online calendars like Pittwire Live, e-newsletters and social media have been used to publicize events and share information.

Staff in the Office of Sustainability hope that the digital habits adopted by students, faculty and staff continue. “Reducing printing positively impacts the University’s sustainability goals. When we reduce printing, we not only use less paper, we also reduce associated chemical and plastic waste from toner and printers,” Director of Sustainability Aurora Sharrard said.

“We are thankful that the campus community supports our sustainability efforts and are willing to make changes to their habits. Reducing printing—and choosing carbon neutral or 100% recycled content paper when you do print—can be a significant step in that direction,” Sharrard said. Pitt Print Stations already use Tree Zero paper, which is also the cheapest 8.5x11 option for Pitt offices to buy in Panther Express, she noted.

Overall, Pitt IT expects printing to increase once pandemic restrictions are lifted, but not to its former levels. The pandemic has been a crash course on working digitally—and they anticipate it will have a permanent impact. “We’ve built these habits over the course of a whole year, so I think printing will continue to decrease after the pandemic,” Petrauskas predicted. 

Whatever way students, faculty and staff work moving forward, Pitt IT will support the tools they need.