If you work in the tech industry, it’s not uncommon to attend a conference almost every week, or at least every other week. Despite the promulgation at these conferences of next-age technology — including small little devices that hold entire libraries worth of data — I’ve noticed one glaring and particularly galling problem: There is just way too much paper. In an industry with buzzwords like “disruptive,” “game-changing,” “the cloud,” “virtualization” and “paradigm-shifting,” it’s amazing to think that we still hold onto this antiquated medium of paper as if we were a giant used bookstore.

Next month, the largest and most prominent of tech conferences will be occurring in Las Vegas — the Consumer Electronics Show  — and you can be sure, even with new versions of smartphone and tablet apps exclusively for the 2012 event, that reams and reams of paper will be wasted.

(Full disclosure: I run a mobile publishing company, GENWI.)

I was struck by how much paper I saw at last year’s CES: The conference distributed at least 25 different print versions of its magazine. CES 2011 had 140,000 attendees, and let’s assume 30% picked up a copy. There were close to a million copies of printed magazines distributed. This is discounting the 140,000 copies of the conference program guide and maps printed (or that other primitive corporate totem changing hands between individuals — the business card) .

At least CES appears to be moving in something of a right direction: Attendees of CES 2011 were given the option of refusing the official CES booklet, and the show released a free iPhone application called “Follow Me,” which included some material previously restricted to a paper pamphlet, such as floor maps and schedules.

According to The Wall Street Journal, other tech conferences are adopting similar policies: The Web 2.0 Summit and Macworld Expo have been integrating smartphone functionality as well, with similar kinds of apps, as well as the use of Google Calendar. To quote Journal, though, the services offered so far are “not nearly enough.”

Even if you give attendees the option to use apps instead of paper, there is still the matter of all that paper continuing to be generated. And don’t forget that there are lots of CES-type shows for different industries that aren’t so tech-savvy. Let’s assume that there are 100 conferences of a similar size and composition (in various industries) in a given year. The total copies of magazines printed and distributed around these conferences would be approximately 100 million. Let’s also assume that each magazine contains, on average, 25 sheets. That gives you a total of 2.5 billion sheets of paper. One tree produces an estimated 8333.33 sheets of paper. So that’s about 300,000 trees.

If you’re an environmentally conscious techie, what’s the point of driving a Nissan Leaf, or using energy efficient appliances in your home, if you’re contributing to the razing of potentially 300,000 trees when you unthinkingly pick up a guide or magazine at one of these conferences? Consumers and end users are beginning to embrace paperless magazines and other media. Why can’t those of us participating in these B2B activities join them at the same rate of adoption? You don’t have to be a treehugger to see the basic and simple sense behind all this.

What I propose is making all show guides and magazines totally tablet compatible. Don’t even offer the unnecessary and wasteful option of a paper guide or magazine. Conference organizers can very easily put all of the same information within a smartphone or tablet app that they can on bound pieces of paper. In addition, there are things you can do with a tablet app that you simply can’t with old-fashioned paper such as:

  1. Provide instantaneous updates that aren’t locked into a publication deadline, providing important information on the go.
  2. Provide content that can be more easily shared or reproduced.
  3. Integrate features like rich media, video, zooming, etc.

The only good reason for an outdated reliance on printed hard copies is, well, the outdated reliance on printed hard copies itself. Take this example from a May 2011 New York Times article on paperless conferences:

“Apps can also work for medical conferences, where delegates are given large amounts of information. Catherine Foss, executive director of the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, said she loaded the equivalent of 183 pages of medical paper abstracts and other research documents onto an app for her biannual conference last year. The society still spent roughly $27,000 to print hard copies because attendees are in the habit of taking the books back to the office for reference [emphasis my own], but Ms. Foss said she expected members to gradually make the transition to a digital format.”

183 pages worth of medical abstracts and research documents! If the Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery can do it, and if our tablet-wielding parents and grandparents can do it, we certainly can. Here’s my challenge to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA): Let’s go as paperless as we can for the 2012 CES and maybe even go completely paperless in time for 2013!

PJ Gurumohan is the co-founder and CEO of GENWI, a cloud-based mobile publishing platform. He holds two patents in wireless technology, has authored several journal articles, routinely speaks at technology conferences, and has held various engineering positions at IBM and US Airways. He holds a Ph.D. and a Master of Science in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Arizona State University.

[Rolls of paper image by Kenneth Sponsler/Shutterstock.]