This month we’re hitting another topic we all deal with, which has an impact on the planet as well as our sanity, when (if you’re like me) the junk mail and the overflowing recycling bins weigh us down.

Paper.

Read on to learn what the problem is, and what we can all do about it.

Research

Although paper decomposes, unlike the plastic we explored in depth in January, it still takes an environmental toll. I know I need to pay more attention to the paper that comes into my life, reuse as much as I can, and recycle only as a final step.

  • First up, news flash: paper comes from trees, and deforestation causes environmental harm. But the problem doesn’t end there.

  • Breaking wood pulp down to make paper is an energy-intensive process, usually driven by coal. According to the New York Times, the paper industry emitted the fourth-highest level of carbon dioxide, as of a 2002 study.

  • Of course, even if it’s recycled, this doesn’t mean one-to-one correspondence between the old paper and the new. The fiber breaks down further as it’s recycled, so more fresh pulp must be added. Furthermore, more energy is needed for the recycling process itself.

  • To learn more about the life cycle of paper: http://thepaperlifecycle.org

A closer look at the environmental toll of paper, including pollution, chlorine use, and sludge created when de-inking paper for recycling, is available at Wikipedia. But here’s what it all amounts to: your third-grade teacher on Earth Day was right. Reduce, reuse, recycle. Below are ideas for how to do just that.

Plan

Now’s the time to read through my ideas, or brainstorm your own, for practical changes you can make

Reduce

  • Mail: If you’re like me, your mailbox is filled with things you don’t need. And I’m not even talking just about unsolicited junk mail; I have correspondence from organizations I’ve donated to, or catalogs from companies I’ve ordered from (hello, Pottery Barn, notorious for your beautiful but paper-filled catalogs). These aren’t outright “junk,” but I’d love for these companies and groups to stop using so much paper on my behalf. I used a tool years ago called Paper Karma to get off mailing lists, which meant less paper being produced on my account, as well as less feeling like I was drowning in paper. Thing is, though, the app was discontinued for a time, and mail has a way of creeping back in: one more stocking ordered from Pottery Barn, and the catalogs returned. Good news, though: Paper Karma is back, so it’s time to re-commit. Download their app and as new mail comes in that you don’t need, snap a photo and unsubscribe. For pre-screened credit card offers, check out optoutprescreen.com. And of course, if you have mail you need but can get electronically, be on the lookout for things like paper bills for which you could instead enroll in paperless billing, or updates from your favorite nonprofit that can be done through their email list.

  • Packaging: I’ll confess, I’m a big Amazon Prime user. But sometimes the packaging - multiple nesting boxes, extra paper for padding - is a bit much, and is far more than I could ever reuse for my own mailing needs. My recycling bin is bursting at the seams, which is better than a full trash bin, but still: reducing is far better than accumulating massive amounts to recycle. For those times that you’re just getting a common item, might you just be able to wait until the next Target run instead? Or if you don’t need the item urgently, can it wait in your Amazon cart until you have more to get (note that Amazon might still send items separately, but it’s worth a try)? And as for food packaging, and paper grocery bags, back in January we discussed in detail ways to shop the bulk section with reusable containers. That was related to plastic, but does your bulk section carry things you normally buy in paper sacks or boxes (sometimes with inner bags), like cereal, pasta, sugar, even pancake mix?

  • Paper towels: I used to wipe my kitchen counters with paper towels constantly, so making the switch to some good reusable rags (just simple ones from Target) helped tremendously. I just have a little bucket under the sink where I collect dirty ones, and carry a pile up to the laundry room as needed. Are you using paper towels when you don’t need to?

  • Buy reusable napkins that you’ll enjoy and, if you’re feeling more advanced, bring them with you. (I adore these from Anthropologie - they’re a great size, soft, and absorbent. There are also lots of ideas on Etsy.)  

  • Carry a reusable coffee cup. Most coffee shops will fill it and may even offer a discount (I have two like this one that I’ve been using for years).

  • Having a gathering? Use disposable items judiciously. Can you ask guests to bring their own? Or use a washable alternative? I hosted an event recently with a DIY margarita bar. I was going to use disposable cups, but realized I could benefit from having a dozen cup-sized Mason jars (a great size for small leftovers, salad dressings, and more). They made a cute alternative.

  • I’m enjoying my Hankybook as a replacement for tissues (which, I’ll note, also come in a cardboard box or, worse, a plastic bag for the small travel sizes). You can also go old-school and carry a handkerchief.

  • Toilet paper: consider switching to unbleached, recycled TP. Or if you want to really go for the gold, consider “family cloth.” It’s hard-core, but some families use cloths to wipe (at least for urine) that then get washed. Considering I’ve washed plenty of pairs of urine-soaked undies from small, I-thought-they-were-done-with-accidents children, not to mention I did cloth diapering, this idea may not be so outlandish after all. For more see here or here. You can use old rags or buy cloths (hint: this can be filed under “geez, you really CAN find anything on Etsy.”)

  • Newspapers and magazines: I get it, you like holding these in your hand. But maybe it’s time to consider alternatives: sharing your newspaper subscription with the neighbor. Getting it on fewer days a week. Getting your news online. Paring down your newspaper subscriptions or reading online.

  • Use your phone more. I know, we’re all trying to spend LESS time on our screens, right? But how many times have you taken a brochure, or an appointment reminder card at the dentist, when you could have just jotted down the relevant information, or snapped a photo, with your phone? Get familiar with your notes app or Evernote, a great note-taking app that syncs across devices and lets you add text or photo notes with tags. I end up losing those little bits of paper anyway; at least in my phone they’re searchable! Same goes for saving your recipes on Pinterest or with another app instead of printing them.

  • The little things add up: when buying clothing at a store that wraps it in tissue paper for you, politely decline (and tell them why!). When a cashier reaches for a paper bag for your bottle of wine, or asks if you want a receipt, politely decline. When you are about to print something, consider whether you could instead jot down the information or complete the form online. If you’re about to buy a book, see if you can get it at a library, used bookstore, or as an ebook first. Refuse the receipt offered. Use your phone instead of a printed boarding pass. You get the idea.

Reuse

  • Collect papers that are blank on one side for scratch paper so they get a little more life out of them before they head to the recycling bin. Create a little notepad with quarter-sized sheets and a binder clip. My kids are constantly making little drawings or stories, or I’m whipping up a quick list, so this means less paper for me to buy (and hence, for our trees to produce).

  • If you have nice brown paper, like from shopping bags, use it as wrapping paper. Some of my favorite wrapping jobs have been plain brown paper decorated with (reusable) ribbon or even yarn.

  • See some more inspiration on Pinterest, or on my KCC board! Researching these ideas made me want to try my hand at making envelopes from old paper (like magazine pages), or some of the fun kids’ crafts you can make with toilet paper rolls.

Recycle

If you’re hanging out here at the Kind Consumer Challenge, it’s probably a given that you recycle your paper. Be sure, though, that you’re recycling through your house, not just in the kitchen. Be mindful about carrying items with you until you find a recycling bin, instead of just tossing them. Be sure to close the loop too: are there more products you can buy that are made from recycled paper?

Reach out

Okay, so I’m throwing in another “R,” but hear me out. You’re working toward change in your life. Where are your places of influence where you can encourage the same? Does your team at the office provide a printed agenda for the weekly meeting that no one needs, or print one-sided? Can your church put up a sign by the coffee asking people to bring their own mug to cut down on paper waste? Can you encourage your office to install an air hand dryer, or at least put a “These Come From Trees” sticker on the paper towel dispenser, like I saw at my local library? Can you encourage a recycling bin where there isn’t one?  http://thesecomefromtrees.blogspot.com/

Raise ‘em up

Maybe I’m overdoing the R thing, but one more before we go. Even if your kids are too young to really grasp something like carbon emissions, they know trees. They love trees. Spark some conversations this month. “Can you shake off your wet hands first and use just one paper towel instead of three?” “Let’s replace our stack of new white paper here with some reused paper.” “Here, I’ll use this pretty cloth napkin to wipe your face instead of a paper towel.” “I’m going to read this information off my phone instead of printing it out, see?” And, see my Pinterest board for a project that I remember doing as a kid: making your own recycled paper! It’s fun, but can also be a great time to chat about how it’s a lot of work even for machines to recycle paper, and how we must be careful not to waste it.

 

Paper is all around us and I could keep going with more little ideas. The main goal this month is to pick a couple of key areas to work on (or more - it’s all up to you!), but also to commit to keep your eyes open all month long. Look for paper in your life that you may be desensitized to, and scrutinize every use of it. Look for opportunities to use paper in creative ways, such as kid projects using old paper.

Equip

Once you plan your goals for the month, be sure to complete the “Equip” step of your planning week. Do you need to establish a recycling collection area in a second area of your home? Find some awesome cloth napkins? Download Paper Karma or Evernote? Get ready so you can spend 3 weeks nailing down some new habits!

And be sure to stop over in our Facebook group to share ideas. See you there!

-Julie