The failure of the paperless society has launched a fierce contest among dozens of Northwest companies, all trying to unclog the paper-packed arteries of the modern workplace.
Firms like Airway Heights-based ShredAway have sprung up to help other companies and government offices deal with excess paper.
ShredAway offers one solution: Its trucks drive up to company loading docks and in two minutes chop a dozen boxes of paper into bits.
Other firms have taken over abandoned military command posts or underground Cold War missile sites, replacing the weapons and radar gear with towering stacks of boxes filled with paper or microfilm records.
The companies are making money, in short, because the office technology that people thought would cut the paper glut only makes it easier to generate more paper.
Started five years ago, ShredAway has 2,000 regular customers from North Idaho to Portland and Seattle.
General Manager Ed Burge has seen the firm’s shredding business grow by 20 percent year after year.
It’s a non-stop climb that’s almost embarrassing.
“It’s due to more people worried about their competitors digging through their garbage barrels,” said Burge.
“But some of it is just more paper piling up.”
Some of ShredAway’s customers tried operating their own office shredders, then decided it was easier to let someone else do the work.
“It became a pain. The machine would jam, or you’d have to bag a huge pile of paper shreds,” said Kurt Hanson, an accountant at Interstate Concrete, one of ShredAway’s Coeur d’Alene accounts.
Before using a shredder, Interstate also tried burning its sensitive sales sheets in a warehouse, “but it took forever to do,” said Hanson.
ShredAway charges up to $38 per 200 pounds of shredded paper and makes sure the documents are destroyed on the spot.
About 90 percent of its shredded paper is trucked to a Tacoma pulp plant for recycling, Burge said.
The Washington Water Power Co., uses ShredAway as well as off-site records storage centers because it ran out of room long ago.
One reason is the heavy consumption of copy paper: 250,000 sheets devoured at WWP offices every month. That use grows 5 percent a year, said WWP Planning and Technology Supervisor Bill Donner.
Donner and others cite several reasons for the paper buildup:
Agencies and companies worry about potential lawsuits and hang onto documents longer than needed.
Government regulations add to the flood. WWP has 9,000 boxes, each weighing about 20 pounds, detailing construction or maintenance of its nine hydroelectric dams.
“We have to keep those papers around as long as the dams are in existence,” said Donner.
Technology makes it easier for paper to proliferate.
“You used to have to work some to find information. Now with the Internet and other ways of getting things, everyone is inundated with it,” Donner said.
Many workers now copy or print out dozens of articles a week. “Not because the information is valuable, but just because they find something that’s interesting,” he said.
Human nature takes its toll.
“People really have a human need to hold documents in their hands, to have them right there,” said Pam Weigand, an associate professor at Eastern Washington University. Weigand teaches courses in records management.
The growth in shredding is nearly matched by increases for companies storing paper or transferring documents to microfilm.
The storers are the worker ants of the trade - hauling off tons of computer printouts, ledgers, court documents, company employment records or blueprints and holding them in secured warehouses.
Nationwide, the top dogs in the storage business are firms offering rock-solid storage sites - like salt mines in the Utah Desert.
The next-most-secure site might be the new storage warehouse just opened in Moses Lake by First Team/Titan.
The firm is enticing customers nationwide and overseas, including high-tech Asian firms, offering them records management in a three-story, all-concrete building.
It should be safe; the building served as regional Strategic Air Command operations center during the 1950s.
It can withstand anything but a dead-on nuclear blast.
Spokane’s nearest equivalent is a concrete underground site run by Northwest Microfilm. Built as a Nike missile site about 15 miles north of Fairchild Air Force Base, its three large underground concrete vaults are stacked edge to edge with several thousand boxes of materials.
Firms like Northwest Microfilm or DeVries Business Record Management of Spokane are paid 20-28 cents a box per month for storage.
The customers they cultivate - and try to steal from each other - include the city of Spokane, Spokane County courts, and dozens of area banks and law firms.
“Some of our customers store materials internally. Sooner or later, they run out of space, and that’s where we come in,” said Northwest Microfilm owner Paul Rayburn.
The other service the storage firms offer is retrieval. For $1 to $10 per search, customers needing a document get it sent or faxed to their office within a few hours.
Rayburn bought the former Nike site in the 1970s. Four years ago, he filled the underground bunkers and added another metal storage building.
This summer, keeping up with growth, he’ll build a second metal-walled building.
Firms like Northwest Microfilm and CMS Microfilm Services of Spokane do double-duty, storing documents and microfilming records.
Other firms, like Comstor Productivity Centers of Spokane, make microfilm copies only.
Far more paper ends up being stored than microfilmed, but more businesses are turning to that electronic format. For a modest cost, a company can reduce 2,500 documents to a single roll of microfilm.
Among the biggest paper users in the Northwest are banks and hospitals, said ShredAway’s Burge.
Close behind are law firms and insurance companies; next come government offices including courts and schools, followed by high-tech firms like Hewlett-Packard or Key Tronic.
HP’s Spokane Valley office, which makes telephone test systems, is typical of many offices fighting a losing battle against paper.
Last year the company recycled almost 140 tons of paper. Of that, about 40 tons were chopped and hauled off by ShredAway.
But despite that effort and ongoing disposal of documents no longer needed, the Hewlett-Packard office keeps shipping more boxes of papers to a commercial storage building.
In the last two years, that HP pile has increased by 200 cardboard boxes - each filled with about several hundred sheets of paper.
“We can’t keep them here, we’re totally out of space,” said HP spokeswoman Liz Cox.
The company’s approach toward paper reduction isn’t as aggressive as at other companies.
The corporate giant’s No. 1 money-maker, after all, is the home or office printer.
“Hewlett-Packard has staked a lot of money on making things designed to keep the paperless society from happening,” she said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo; Graphic: Paper is king