As access to information has exploded in recent years, the "information age" has also spawned a need to protect privacy. This has given birth to a thriving new industry -- paper shredding.
American cities have long housed many types of trucks: concrete trucks; delivery trucks; armored trucks; fire trucks. But lately a new kind of truck is often seen on city streets -- the paper shredding truck.
Manned by uniformed workers, these trucks visit government offices, hospitals and businesses collecting documents that require secure disposal, and then gobbling them up like paper-eating factories on wheels.
Lee Miller, owner of the Baltimore, Maryland franchise of the Shred-it Corporation, says the operation is efficient. "We can shred in 15 minutes what it takes all day or maybe two days to shred with an office shredder. That becomes the savings to the client, and that's why they use us."
But another reason Americans use shredding companies is to comply with federal laws that requires document security. The first of these was passed in 1996 and covers medical records.
Kirk J. Nahra is an attorney with Wiley, Rein and Fielding in Washington, DC. He says new laws have necessitated the need to appropriate disposal of documents. "You've got to take reasonable and appropriate steps to protect the security and privacy and confidentiality of the information you have. So that's where the document shredding companies come in as an appropriate way to dispose of sensitive information."
Lee Miller agrees, and says additional privacy laws have brought new customers to shredding companies. "Shred-it, which was the first on-site shredding company, was formed in 1989, and it was a relatively small operation. Over the years it has branched out and there are now 140 branches. Since 1996 we've added most of those, so most of that growth has been in the last 10 years."
"And then in the last year and a half or so we've seen an explosion in security breach problems, and widespread attention being focused on privacy and security in all industries," offers Nahra.
Mr. Nahra adds that Congress has taken steps to help prevent identity theft by passing the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act which could give shredding companies their biggest boost yet. "Now it is an issue that applies both practically and legally to essentially any business that has either customer information or employee information, which is essentially any business in the country."
The process is simple. Shredding companies provide customers with locked boxes to store sensitive documents for disposal.
Miller describes the process "Then once a week, once a month -- depending how fast they fill them -- then we come out and shred the material. Some clients, such as a big hospital, might have 300 or 400 of these. Most of our clients have just one or two."
After shredding paper all day, trucks bring it back to a warehouse and dump it in a bailer.
"And this is what it comes out of the baler looking like. This is loose because it is the top of the bale, but this bale here is solid - weighs about three-fourths of a ton, and we make about 50 to 60 of these a day."
The bales are then sold to recycling centers, where they are normally made into paper towels.
The recycling saves trees, Miller says. "Last year we shreded over 6,000 tons of paper, and this year we're going to do something like 7,500 tons of paper. A ton of paper is approximately 10 trees in the raw, as it stands in the forest. So you're looking at something like 75,000 trees that will be saved this year."
But Kirk Nahra points out that shredding is only one aspect of the security problem. "And a lot of information is not on paper. So we need to look at this holistically, and companies need to look at shredding as one component of their security protection, but they can't stop there," he says.
As long as there is paper, though, shredding trucks are likely to remain part of the U.S urban landscape.