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What are Paper Chads?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Paper chads are the small pieces of paper created when holes are punched. The term “chad” is also used to refer to detritus left over from punching other thin materials such as textiles, plastic, and sheet metal. Paper chads gained infamy in the United States during the chaotic Presidential election in 2000, but they are also a common byproduct of any industry which punches holes in paper. Since paper chads are small and very lightweight, devising ways to deal with them can be challenging.

The origins of the term are unclear. The use of “chads” to refer to pieces of paper left over from punching dates back to at least the 1920s, and possibly earlier. Companies also market “chadless” punching systems which make slits in the paper without generating paper chads. There are also a number of qualifying terms to describe chads, such as pregnant and hanging chads. Most people with hole punches are familiar with paper chads and their incompletely separated cousins.

Any time a hole is punched in material, the material from inside the hole has to end up somewhere. In industries which do a lot of paper punching, these small fragments of paper can get quite irritating, especially in high volume. For that reason, paper manufacturers often have “chad collectors” under punching tables, to keep floating paper chads on the factory floor to a minimum. These chads can later be recycled into new paper.

Paper chads are also created when punch cards are made. Punch cards were once extensively used in computer programming as well as in manufacturing things like textiles, and punch card ballots used to be standard for American elections. While punch cards have largely fallen out of use in favor of more advanced technology, many people are familiar with the concept of a punch card, thanks to their once pervasive presence.

When a hole is punched incompletely, it may result in a dimpled or hanging chad. Dimpled chads are also known as pregnant chads, and they are created when a punch fails to fully penetrate the paper, creating a mark or dimple without fully detaching the chad. A hanging chad is created by a partial punch, which successfully creates a hole, but does not fully detach the chad. In the 2000 election, these paper chads became a major bone of contention, forcing manual recounting of punchcard ballots in several areas of the United States.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Reminiscence — On Jan 24, 2015

I used to throw out all of the paper chads my office generated, but one day my little daughter came to work and saw me open up a hole punch. She saw all of the colorful chads and asked if she could take them home. I didn't see any real harm in it, so I put them in a plastic bag for her.

The next day, she brought me an art project she was working on. She used those paper chads like mosaic tiles, creating larger images like flowers and abstract designs. I thought it was a great use for something I'd been throwing away for years.

By RocketLanch8 — On Jan 23, 2015

I wish I could say my office came up with a real solution to the paper chads problem, but we didn't. We used to collect all the chads trapped in the hole punch and use it as confetti during someone's birthday party. That's about all we could think to do with a box full of little paper circles. Sometimes the hole punch would get clogged with paper chads and we'd just toss them out in the trash.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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