Office automation was supposed to cut the use of paper, but the proliferation of copiers, faxes, and printers is generating mountains of it--all impregnated with toner, the powdered resin that's seared onto copied pages. Most recycling processes can't remove toner, so they yield poor-quality paper. Now, Japan's Ricoh Co. thinks it has the answer: an erasing technology that turns the printed page into plain paper.
Ricoh's approach basically reverses the electrophotographic printing process. First, a chemical loosens the toner. Then, heat and pressure applied with a roller lift the toner from the paper. Presto! Instant plain paper. Ricoh says the same sheet can be recycled many times--and that the eraser unit can fit into a regular copy machine. That means you can load a used piece of paper into the machine and make a new copy in one pass. Before long, Ricoh hopes to market the technology, which boasts about 30 patents. But first, it will have to speed up the system, which as yet can handle only three sheets per minute.