Laser un-printers could help save the trees


March 14, 2012

Laser "un-printers" would allow paper to be re-used, reducing the need for virgin wood pulp (Photo via Shutterstock)

Laser "un-printers" would allow paper to be re-used, reducing the need for virgin wood pulp (Photo via Shutterstock)

If you're concerned about deforestation, you likely blue-bin the no-longer-needed sheets of paper that have been run through your printer. You should keep in mind, however, that even though the recycling of that paper saves trees, the process still requires considerable energy, and most recycled paper still contains some virgin wood pulp. What would be better is if there were an "un-printer" that took the toner off of the used paper, so you would be left with a blank sheet that you could reuse. Well, thanks to research being conducted at the University of Cambridge, there soon may be.

The research was conducted by Dr. Julian Allwood, Leader of the university's Low Carbon Materials Processing Group, and PhD student David Leal-Ayala.

The pair started with regular Canon copy paper, which had text printed on it in HP Laserjet black toner. With assistance from The Bavarian Laser Centre, they then used a total of ten experimental set-ups, to see if lasers could be used to vaporize toner print from paper. Various intensities and pulse durations of laser light were tried, with spectra including ultraviolet, visible and infrared.

They concluded that lasers can be used for toner removal, without causing significant damage to the underlying paper - after the process has been repeated several times on the same sheet, however, some deterioration does occur. Additionally, they estimated that if toner removal was commonly carried out in most workplaces, the emissions produced by the pulp and paper recycling industry could be reduced by at least 50 percent. The need for paper production processes including forestry, pulping, paper-making and paper disposal would also be greatly reduced.

"What we need to do now is find someone to build a prototype," said Allwood. "Thanks to low-energy laser scanners and laser-jet printers, the feasibility for reusing paper in the office is there."

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A.

Source: University of Cambridge via New Scientist

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

What happens to the vaporised toner? Does the process create more CO2 or particulates that need disposal? What is the overall cost of vaporisation compared to recycling?

I'm sure there are other points to ponder as well

Philip Morgan

Uhg. Not using paper doesn't save trees. It kills them.

Paper is made from commercially grown trees. They are planted, tended for, cut and sold for the sole purpose to produce pulp.

With a diminishing demand for paper the price of pulp drops. This means the land on which these forests are planted will be more economic when used for other purposes such as agriculture or dairy.

There used to be a trend for dairy land to be converted to forests but this trend has now reversed and many forest are not replanted after harvesting.

Although I don't buy into the whole global warming scam, reducing the use of paper kills forests and increases so called global warming gasses due to alternate use of that land.

But I suppose people rarely think beyond step one.

Paul van Dinther

The vapor from the ink must be captured in some type of filter I should think, as much paper as my little office goes through this could be a major cost cutter so I'd wager we'll order one should it ever be commercialized.

Michael Gene

Why no just make paper out of something else - like hemp, bamboo, banana leaves etc. etc. Leave the forests alone : )

Facebook User

re; MD

"The concept of landfill is very modern and needs to be rethought..."

Really finding someplace convenient to dump our trash is as old of a concept as any know to man.


The vapour "must be" captured in a filter...

Sure, like the exhaust from a photocopier "must be" filtered... well that would be generally not....

I agree, the "Cost to the recyclers would be reduced by half (sure thing), but the cost to the economy will likely be increased....

Have they also got a laser paper regenerator, to iron out the wrinkles in a used sheet of paper.....

Much of the paper used does not remain pristine, and that "non-pristine" paper will end up jamming the printer.... Again if everyone were to iron every sheet pf paper flat and laser it new, the cost will increase....

Doesn't someone have a development, for large offices to recycle and re-manufacture their waste paper at the end of use.....

Again, economy of scale will make this much cheaper for centralised recyclers....

Often the best option is not so obvious....

The cost of transportation, storage, recycling etc woul dpossibly be better used burning the paper at locally centralised energy generation plants....

Then the diesel fuel used to return the paper to point of manufacture won't be needed, and $$ in the form of energy will be recovered....

Isn't that what many european cities have been doing for a long time....

The concept of landfill is very modern and needs to be rethought....

What is uneconomically recycled often has a high energy density, making direct energy generation viable....

(Even conversion to liquid fuels used a lot of the energy contained (up to 50%) direct conversion, through burning or pyrolysis with the pyrolytic products destined for use at point of generation is more viable.)

(Sorry this is a bit long, but the paper recycling ends up a land use and global energy problem.)


If rather than printing, a special document format, and file organisation software is created, furnishing the office environment. With multi finger print readers as accessors. Touch screens to write signatures with stylus. Plus massive terabyte storage devices. This all can also be done via Android touch screen phones and cloud storage. Screen resolution has made leaps and bounds. The latest screens and beyond retina display. If the government is serious it should: 1 Identify where paper is being used objectively 2 Classify areas which are not too critical 3 Integrate known technologies as described above 4 Make publicly available, including government financing schemes 5 Private company promotion schemes and tax benefits 6 Establish a policy, and policy into law.

Dawar Saify

Right approach wrong execution. I had suggested to vendors when I was a corporate buyer that printing to paper is old hat. What they needed to do is work with the eInk folks to come up with a electronic paper sheet. The printer merely interfaces with the eInk substrate for connections and forms the characters on the fly, reusing old eInk paper.

The only downside is you can't fold eInk products and reuse them.


Like MD said: why not use other sources to produce paper??

Specially HEMP!!!

I found a book in a old abandoned factory in my area, the book was in part with no roof (colapsed) it had rained in that day... the book in question is from 1883!! made of HEMP!! and the sheets of the book were absolutely wet!! I took it home and it still in good shape without any type restauration...

using paper produced with wood pulp specially from eucaliptus (tree used to dry land stolen from submerged areas) that ruins every soil with is nature..

I cant understand why hemp is not used for paper production.

Tiago Roque

why not work on an ink product which has a short "sheet life" ie disappears and an option you can chose to employ for long term (such as legal or id) documents you need to preserve.

the majority of personal print outs serve only a convenience purpose, ie to read easier or more comfortable and then discard within hours/days.

this is more an "opt in" when you need it rather than being forced to "opt out" by erasing print

food for thought



Has anyone given any thought to how many jobs the printing industry creates? Surely you would think that in this time of high unemployment that would be a consideration. Much of the paper being used today is recycled and there are tree farms that help with new paper products. Lets consider the pollution caused by the discarding of high tech gadgets not to mention the energy required for running said devices. There is still alot to be said for carrying a piece of paper with some notes on it or directions instead of an expensive smart device that often requires an expensive data plan to operate it. Just my opinion.


Paul van Dinther - March 14, 2012 @ 07:29 pm PDT stated everything that needed to be said. All the other responses are ridiculous responses to a non problem. There is absolutely no reason to recycle paper for printing purposes. Do some research and stop being automatons. The facts are there for the finding. Using trees for paper is G-O-O-D!

Massive deforestation for no purpose is bad.

Separate the two and get on with your lives. This article is a complete waste of time.


I think developing TWO selectable varieties of ink is the go.... One the typical toner that is (?) of an archival quality and another that can be UV'd off the paper on the next pass through the photocopier, that or 10 minutes in sunlight...

Mr Stiffy

Consumption != good. Certain level of consumption is a motivator to continue a cycle of production, which creates job etc. But that doesn't make Consumption "good" by default.

I hope NO ONE thinks Waste = good. Rampant Consumption = Waste. And at its current state, a lot of paper waste is produced in the office.

Saying using trees for paper is GOOD sounds more like brainwashing than a legit argument. It's more accurate to say using trees for paper is better than clear cutting to make open land, IF those trees are replanted, IF those are the ONLY two options. Which obviously is not. It's the lesser of two evils, doesn't make it good. And it's a false dichotomy.

Calvin k

Paper factories have always recycled paper from trimmings, roll ends and other bits that don't make it into the finished, cut sheets. When the paper web breaks, the ragged ends get cut off and sent to "broke paper" storage until that particular type is being run again.

All that internal waste gets dumped right back into the process. In the fairly recent recycle everything "green" push the paper companies simply listed on the product what they'd been doing as normal practice since the dawn of paper making.

If you're looking for "green" paper, look at the "post consumer" recycled content percentage.

Gregg Eshelman

Paper is EMP proof.


Check about Minus One Project - a green initiative by Samsung Printers to save trees and our forests. It takes a small step like reducing the font size by 1 before printing to make the difference. This small step now being followed by millions, has helped in forest conservation worldwide. You can read more here -

I am sure, this initiative can also help in save our forests.

Amit Verma
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