Engineers have formulated a way of applying lasers to remove ink from paper so it can be reused in printers and photocopiers.
The new technique could drastically reduce the number of trees cut down to produce paper and even provide a cheaper alternative to recycling, said Julian Allwood, who led the research team at the University of Cambridge.
The researchers used short pulses of laser light to delete words and images that have been printed on paper. The laser vaporises the toner ink without damaging paper and opens up the prospect of future computer printers and photocopiers having an "unprint" function to allow paper to be reused.
"The process works on a wide range of toners. It does not damage the paper so the feasibility for reusing paper in the office is there," said Allwood, the journal Proceedings of The Royal Society A reports.
Allwood estimates it would cost 19,000 pounds to build a prototype unprinter but that the costs would come down as technology improves and it is commercialised, according to the Telegraph.
He said he has been approached by several commercial firms expressing interest in producing the first "unprint" devices.
They found that while lasers that used ultraviolet light and infrared light were all effective at removing the ink, the most efficient was using a visible green laser. This removed the ink without causing any physical damage to the paper or discolouration.
Filters can be used to capture the vaporised ink, which is given off as a gas. They calculate that reducing the cost to 16,000 pounds would make the device valuable in most offices by reducing the need to buy paper.
They also believe that it could be kinder to the environment by reducing the need to use as many chemicals to recycle paper and cutting carbon emissions savings of up to 79 percent.