Joe Miller wants to put an ad on the bottom of every page you print, from your work to your school library. He's even eyeing your own personal inkjet for a media buy.
"This is starting with something small, like a piece of paper, and turning it into something large, like a tree," Joe Miller says, explaining the concept of his brand new startup Print A Forest. He sells banner ads that his software slaps onto the bottom of your printed page, and then he puts the money toward reforestation projects. For every 100 pages you print with his ads at the bottom, he'll plant a tree.
"I actually started it because it was something I wanted," he says. Miller grew despondent as a college student at Michigan State because his printing habits seemed too environmentally destructive. "As a finance student, you can't not print your notes," he says. "My grades were suffering." So he approached the university library with a plan. He wanted a way to offset all the deforestation from the university library—by his estimate, about 9 million pages or 1,200 trees each year. Originally he figured he'd make reams with pre-printed ads people could choose to use, but that was too tough to manage for the library.
Now, two years later, he's launching a business. "You hit print, it sends the doc to your printer and tells our database" he says, and "then [an advertiser] sends us a check." There's no cost to the user except the extra printer ink. "Down the line I'd like to have coupons—that's 2.0—so there's some incentive to use it." And a Mac option—right now it's PC-only. The program tracks your stats so you know how many trees you've planted with your printing.
Right now Miller is using the Nature Conservancy's Plant-A-Billion campaign. One dollar plants one tree. So as long as he can sell the ads for more than a penny-plus-overhead, he can stay true to the slogan. Allstate is his first and only advertiser, paying well above the penny-a-page level as a founding sponsor, he says. The company has printed about 1,200 pages so far in tests with friends and family prior to this soft launch. Miller is in talks with a few universities and hopes to pitch a plan to integrate Print A Forest into corporate software or institutional printing plans.
Jeff Mendelsohn founder of New Leaf Paper, a leader in environmentally friendly printing, likes the idea. "It sounds like an interesting and potentially effective way to bring the idea [of conservation] front and center." He says the best part is that it inserts a "feedback loop at the point of paper usage" that might make people more aware of their printing and just print less. He cautions not all tree plantings are equal, so there needs to be a website showing third party verification of the impact of the planted trees.
There's no easy way to estimate how many trees are consumed by your printing habits, or how many trees this new business could add to the planet. A lot of factors go into charting the environmental impact of a printed page, from the recycled content of the paper, the shipping methods and, yes, the printing. According to Canopy Planet, a sustainable publishing advocacy group, the paper comprises anywhere from 48 to 90 percent of the environmental impact. The printing is 4 to 8 percent.
Overall though, printing is getting more sustainable. Paper companies are taking drastic steps to improve through smarter forestry and closer measurement of the non-tree-related inputs like shipping and manufacturing. New Leaf Paper, for instance, allows customers to track the footprint of each purchase so they can offset it, or better yet, reduce it. The Environmental Paper Network offers online tools to evaluate and migrate to "environmentally superior" paper well worth a few clicks if you buy in bulk.
While those companies and organizations devise ways to make paper more planet-positive, we still have to print out our finance notes. Print A Forest is a tool that can help us print more responsibly.