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A Teen, a Typeface, and $136M in Taxpayer Savings

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As the world’s largest purchaser, the U.S. government must explore every savings opportunity -- down to the last serif on its millions of printed pages.

But when a Pittsburgh sixth-grader recently detailed a proposal to save the feds $136 million merely by printing documents in a simpler typeface, the Government Printing Office’s reaction was lukewarm. Consider the story as CNN reported it on Friday and judge for yourself.

Suvir Mirchandani, a 14-year-old middle-school science fair participant, took note of the wasteful barrage of paper handouts he was receiving in his classes. Hoping to help the environment and use his computer skills, he zeroed in on the high price of ink -- ink in printer cartridges is more expensive per ounce than French perfume, he found.

“Collecting random samples of teachers' handouts, Suvir concentrated on the most commonly used characters (e, t, a, o and r),” reporter Madeleine Stix wrote on CNN’s website. “First, he charted how often each character was used in four different typefaces: Garamond, Times New Roman, Century Gothic and Comic Sans. Then he measured how much ink was used for each letter, using a commercial tool called APFill® Ink Coverage Software.”

His conclusion? By using Garamond with its thinner strokes, his school district could reduce ink consumption by 24 percent, for an annual savings of $21,000.

With his teacher’s encouragement, he submitted his results to the Harvard University-based Journal for Emerging Investigators. Editors were impressed enough to ask that the teenager apply his formula to the printing costs of Uncle Sam. Those, according to CNN’s reporting, amount to $1.8 billion annually, with $467 million going to ink alone.

The verdict? Using Garamond in federal texts and forms would produce a 30 percent savings--$136 million a year.

Gary Somerset, GPO’s media and public relations manager, agreed that the student's work is "remarkable." But the spokesman for the agency that is hoping to change its name to the Government Publishing Office would not commit to embracing Garamond. The agency’s efforts at environmental sustainability are focused on switching to more Web-based publishing.

"In 1994, we were producing 20,000 copies a day of both the Federal Register and Congressional Record,” he told CNN. “Twenty years later, we produce roughly 2,500 print copies a day,” on recycled paper.

Said the teenage visionary, "I recognize it's difficult to change someone's behavior.”

Charlie Clark joined Government Executive in the fall of 2009. He has been on staff at The Washington Post, Congressional Quarterly, National Journal, Time-Life Books, Tax Analysts, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the National Center on Education and the Economy. He has written or edited online news, daily news stories, long features, wire copy, magazines, books and organizational media strategies.

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