Lately, I’ve been putting in a lot of energy into paper. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “[p]aper makes up 28 percent of municipal solid waste (MSW), more than any other material Americans throw away.” Although, according to the hand dryer I used at the rest stop the other day, paper makes up 40 percent of land fills. I am not sure if MSW does not all end up in landfills, and if that accounts for the disparity in percentages, but, in any case, paper makes up a lot of our waste. Fortunately, paper seems to be the easiest thing to try and keep out of landfills. Unfortunately, it also accumulates so quickly! Between the cereal and pasta boxes, mail, business papers, packing and wrapping materials, toilet paper rolls, catalogues and little bits of random paper is tough to keep up with. Even with the outdoor composter and the worm composter (two different systems!) I almost can’t keep up with it. But I am trying.
I am conscientiously trying to stop using paper as much as possible. Luckily for any future guests, I will not give up toilet paper, but I have stopped using paper napkins and drastically reduced my paper towel consumption. My mom is not pleased. And even though I really dislike doing dishes, I no longer buy paper plates. Admittedly, it took a little while to get accustomed to cloth napkins for daily meals use, but it’s getting less weird with time. I didn’t even have to buy new cloth napkins. I’ve had some for years that sat lonely in the curio cabinet waiting to be used for the three to four dinner parties I might have a year. Now my husband and I use them regularly.
I have also tried to reduce my dry good purchases that come in cardboard boxes such as boxed rice mixes. The cardboard boxes I do end up buying, like cereal and tea boxes, I actually hand shred and take to either of my composters. I am toying with the idea of making my own pasta. So far this is ambition and optimism over reality and time, but pasta continues to account for one of my major boxed dry-good purchases, so I will continue to search for a solution.
I save tissue paper for either gift wrapping or packaging for shipped items. In fact, I seek out tissue paper from others. Whenever I am at a present-exchanging event, I go so far as to remove tossed tissue paper from the big plastic garbage bag and fold it up into neat squares that I can save for later. It’s kind of weird, but most of the tissue is brand new. People shop at the last minute, grab a gift bag and tissue from the store and “wrap” the present on the way to the party, barely bothering to unfold the tissue paper. I know this to be true because it is my husband’s inevitable method of purchasing gifts.
Mail continues to be a challenge even in this day and age. I have switched over to paperless on those accounts that allow for it. I’ve even tried those sites that are supposed to help reduce catalogues and junk mail, but they don’t work. The mail just keeps coming. In any case, I try to machine or hand shred it all, even the catalogues and magazines, to stick in one of my compost bins. Letter mail gets to be particularly tedious because you have to remove the plastic windows from the envelopes since it won’t compost. I even put some machine shredded magazines and catalogues aside for future packing material. The pages are light-weight and colorful and work really well in place of foam peanuts or bubble wrap.
But even with all these efforts, it is still difficult to keep up with the paper. One time I made recycled paper pots out of shredded cardboard. They worked brilliantly and next year I plan to make bigger, better pots. But this was one additional use for the excess paper and maybe removed three boxes from the cycle. There is still so much more. Neither of my composters can keep up with it and I can only save so much for packing. I can easily stick it in the recycling, but I feel that this is me being lazy and putting the burden on someone else. Besides, I am not sure that it will not end up in the landfill anyway and I want to remove it from the system entirely.
Many municipalities have a composting program. These are wonderful resources for any community, resulting in cheap or free compost for the residents and a convenient place to take your compostable items. Sadly, my community does not have such a program. One of the reasons that I took so long to put up this post is that I was sure I would be able to find a composting program in my area that I could dump off my excess paper. What I found out, instead, is that if there are programs in my area, they don’t accept paper and they charge by the cubic yard to accept your waste. And the municipal programs in my area restrict the drop-off to residents with purchased stickers, which does not mean me. So annoying. As often happens when my desire to be both ecologically and financially responsible meet and disagree, I am a crossroads. Even if I could find a place that accepted paper to compost, I might have to to spend money to get rid of it.
As I was researching local composting programs, I noticed that none of them actually encouraged using paper as composting material. This was odd to me since I had been giving paper to my worms for quite a while. I dug a little deeper to see what the deal was. As to the harms and benefits, I ran across this post which provided a thoughtful answer to the question. Basically, that guy doesn’t like it. And his reasons made sense (that while it may compost, it lacks nutrients and may leach toxic chemicals into the compost, especially glossy magazines). But he also goes on to say that rainwater, animal manure or scraps from produce are also not 100% free of chemicals. He also says that he doesn’t bother with paper because it can be recycled easily. I tend disagree that just because it can be recycled it is actually getting recycled and that all the recovered material is being sold, but I have to admit I am not basing that on fact, but by a tendency to automatically believe in the inherent inefficiencies of any system. I looked through a few websites pretty thoroughly, including this one about the paper industry to soothe my skepticism. However, I couldn’t find a straight answer about what percentage of paper that is purposefully recycled and bundled up and sent to a processing plant is actually used as a commodity to produce more paper. There are only figures about the amount of paper consumed that is recovered, or the amount of paper in landfills, which isn’t an accurate reflection of what I am after.
So what started out as a righteous, self-congratulatory post about the part I am playing in keeping paper out of landfills became a post full of questions and doubts. Am I spending too much time thinking about paper? Am I doing the right thing by keeping it out of the landfill and trying to compost it? Does it even matter that I don’t buy pasta in boxes since I can throw it in recycling and have it end up as a commodity that uses less energy to process than raw wood? I feel like my obsession with paper is kind of like a radish rose–kinda impressive but everyone wonders why the heck anyone would take the time to make a rose out of a radish in the first place. I will have to continue to give this some serious thought and continue to do research. In the mean time, I can always focus on plastic.
Thank you for reading my post. Don’t forget you can visit my site at http://www.lifeimproved.org for other mind-blowing posts and perspectives–and some fluff. As always, please feel free to share, quote, praise, and reflect kindly upon my blog!