Office shredder metal teeth

Classic Project: Office paper shredder

Image credit: Dreamstime

With 90 per cent of identity theft the result of information gained from print sources (rather than electronic hacking), it is easy to see why ‘document destruction’ - to give paper shredding its industry term - has become big business.

In the USA alone, this ‘document destruction’ generates more than £1bn in both services and machinery, as businesses and private individuals recognise the critical impact of privacy and security breaches. That figure will only increase with projected paper-use increases.

Although Abbot Augustus ‘Gus’ Lowe’s original patent for the paper shredder dates back to 1909, document destruction didn’t really take off outside the world of governmental security until 1988, when the US Supreme Court ruled that items of household rubbish became public property as soon as they were put on the kerb to await collection.

In general, documents shredded on domestic machines and then disposed of by rubbish collection agencies will be less secure than documents sent out to professional agencies. ID thieves can reconstruct documents shredded on office equipment, meaning that when you see forensic scientists painstakingly putting these jigsaws together - so-called ‘un-shredding’ - on TV crime procedurals such as CSI or NCIS, that’s within the realms of possibility. With today’s shredders also displaying device-specific characteristics called ‘fingerprints’, the machines themselves are traceable from the shreds.

Although inventor and entrepreneur Gus Lowe filed US patent number 929,960 for a ‘waste-paper receptacle’ on 31 August 1909, the concept of a discrete machine for the purpose remained on the drawing board for decades. Despite Lowe being a serious inventor - only Thomas Edison has more patents to his name - the New York engineer never got to see his shredder through to production.

In fact, the first operating shredder dates to 1935 and is credited to German toolmaker Adolf Ehinger, who also happened to have a side-line in printing anti-Nazi propaganda. When a neighbour saw his discarded prints in a bin outside his workshop, security bells started ringing in the resourceful mechanic’s mind, leading him to devise a machine that would render his discarded documents unreadable, based on the pasta maker in his kitchen. Encouraged by his success, Ehinger started selling his shredders locally and then to government agencies and financial institutions.

The motivation for shredding paper nearly always contains an element of there being something to hide. While Ehinger might well have been one of the good guys, the first time document destruction really entered the public imagination was for far more nefarious purposes. This was when, in the 1970s, US President Richard Nixon used the technology to dispose of masses of information in an attempt to cover up the Watergate scandal.

Since then, there have been accounts of Iranian revolutionaries enlisting carpet weavers to assist with reconstructing shredded documents stolen from outside American Embassies in 1979. This security breach led to the introduction of crosscut shredding, in order to make un-shredding more difficult. ID theft based on acquisition of personal documents became a lot easier after the American Supreme Court ruling gave private detectives and ‘dumpster divers’ a free rein to legally gather sensitive information about private individuals.

Today, despite a drive for the ‘paperless office’, paper consumption is on the increase. Figures from the Forest Ethics organisation, Environmental Paper Network and the World Resources Institute say the normal office worker will run through 10,000 sheets of paper per year, a document will be reproduced on copier paper nine times on average and our worldwide consumption of a trillion sheets of paper will, at current rates, double every 3.3 years. Information privacy legislation is driving the professional shredding industry, which now has 300 times more companies involved than in the 1980s.

Shredder facts and figures

Rip it up and start again

In 2012, paper shredders caused 2,700 injuries

The paper shredding industry in US alone is worth approx £1bn per annum

Todayís shredders reduce paper to 3x9mm pieces

Popular shredder designs include grinders, cross-cutters and particle cutters

There are multi-blade paper shredding scissors

Shredded paper routinely gets repurposed for the production of toilet roll, egg cartons, animal bedding and shopping bags.

The average office worker will use as much as 10,000 sheets of copy paper per year

More than a trillion sheets of paper are used worldwide per year, 45 per cent of which are disposed of the first day of use

Office paper use doubles every 3.3 years

General arrangement of a basic electric office paper shredder



Top cover



Main gear

Drive gear

Electric motor


Left shaft

Right shaft

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