Tag Archives: paper

Paper chase

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!

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Don’t leave home without them

Many of us work hard to be conscientious about the environment at home. We take a lot of steps to reduce our consumption and our waste. And to recycle and reuse. But something weird happens when we leave our little biodomes. Maybe it’s because we don’t buy the supplies at the office, or take out the trash at the Starbucks. Or maybe it’s because it’s inconvenient and extra work to care enough. Or, quite simply, we forgot. I am not casting stones. I do this constantly and get really irritated with myself for not having a re-usable cup handy at coffee shops and for using disposable items at the office. This is especially frustrating to me because I really do put a lot of effort into these things at home. I mean, I hand tear the mail and cereal boxes for the composter, for Pete’s sake.

What I have realized, though, is that it is all about small transitions. My habits are much more eco-conscientious today than they were last month. And I am light years from the neanderthal I was a year ago. ( Irony Alert: Neanderthals were actually, probably pretty eco-friendly. Really, I just mean I used to buy a lot of paper plates and stuff). So every once and again I try a new eco-thing and eventually it just becomes habit.It just becomes part of your routine. But let’s not forget what happens when we leave home.

Let’s start with work. Our office spaces don’t always make it convenient to be green. Paper cups –or horror of horrors, styrofoam cups–are usually readily available. Sometimes there is no storage for our ceramic or reusable mugs. Or there is no where to wash the mug from time to time. Also, there is often just no culture for it. But it can start with you. This is when you hear some inspirational song in your head, like from Rocky.

If you are in management, think about getting a set of office mugs with your company logo. Encourage your employees to use them. One sneaky trick: take a while to stock up the paper cups to force people to use the office mugs. Or, think of creative contests where people are rewarded for using mugs. Do the same thing with re-usable plastic drinking glasses to encourage people to use those for water. Yes. Some people will complain about washing their own cups. But we are adults and can probably handle this task. Laziness is not a good excuse for all that waste and cost.

If you are a mere employee, then let the change start with you. Make it a point to bring your own cup/mug. Start a dialogue with your colleagues. No one wants to admit they don’t care about the environment. It’s like admitting that they hate puppies or that they just punched grandma. Maybe once you have converted (or shamed) some people into joining your I-guess-I-don’t-want-dolphins-to-die-and-the-world-to-go-dark-and-cold club, then you can talk to management about implementing a mug culture. You can event back it up with facts–not necessarily about dolphins dying–but about cost savings and stuff.

For example, in my small office space of 20 or so employees, let’s assume 3/4 of the people use at least one disposable cup a day, so that is 15 cups per day, multiplied by 253 ( rough, rough calculation of days in the year, minus weekends, minus holidays). That is 3795 cups per year. My office puchases these 16 oz. “foam” cups from Quill, an office supply company, that cost around $55 per 1000 (if you buy by the case). So even by the most conservative estimates, my small office is spending over $200 a year just in cups. And that’s for the cheap cups. My old office of roughly the same number of people bought those paper cups with the weird bubbly skin on the outside. The cost of providing those for an office for one year is over $400. Throw in the cost of post-it notes and legal pads, the costs of sending mail by post, and the costs of printing memos and other documents. If you are a business person, you know that these things add up. Someone who did a lot more work than I did put together this fabulous and startling article about going paperless. And, here’s another article covering things from coffee filters to water usage at the office.

The office is just one place in which we forget our good habits. Getting a latte or water when you are out and about is another. Did you know that roughly 250,000 plastic bottles are dumped every hour and that plastic bottles constitute close to 50% of recyclable waste in the dumps. Even worse,
it takes an average of 700 years to decompose in a landfill. ( Read about those and other statistics here). Now, I have gotten pretty good about brining a re-fillable water bottle with me, but I am just horrible about remembering a mug for my chais and lattes, and occasionally, my chai lattes. I make lots of excuses for myself: My husband took them all, they were all dirty, it’s not as big as a tall or grande latte so it’s not that good of a deal. These are all excuses. The truth is that I just don’t think of it. But, once again, getting into the habit can mean keeping the habit. So I just have to start. You, too! In the meantime, you can read this cool, slightly snarky article that reveals a lot about this issue. The authors are a lot cooler than I will ever be–they live in Portland, after all–but my message is the same: “‘Switching to a reusable mug carries with it the perception that it’s inconvenient only because it is different than the norm. Change is scary … But once commuter mugs become the norm … it’s no big deal. ‘I mean, sometimes you’re going to be out and not have a mug with you, … but if you have one in your car/bike/office, it becomes part of your normal routine’.”

Pressed Paper Pots

This year I am actually growing some seedlings inside to transplant outside. I bought these Burpee compostable packs for the job.

20130425-195433.jpg20130425-195451.jpg20130425-195459.jpgThey are cheap, about 15 cents each, and go directly in the ground when you are ready to plant. But as I was looking at them, it occurred to me that they are really just pressed paper. If you’ve ever made home made paper on a screen, you’ll understand what I am talking about.

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If not, let me explain. You can make that thick, fancy textured paper by shredding paper, blending it to pulp, and pouring out onto a screen and pressing out liquid, then letting it dry completely. The paper will end up having the imprint from the screen. I thought surely I could figure out a way to make these. I didn’t know if I would use the screen…that imprint was just the clue that keyed me on to the idea of making these. The trick would be to be able to mold them.

As I normally do with projects I have an inkling for but no clear direction with, I hit the internet. Surprisingly, I really couldn’t find a precise replica of these. At best, I found methods using newspaper “cups” (really, just taking newspaper and making a flat bottomed cup), toilet paper rolls (almost tempted to use this), paper egg cartons (clever but too small, I thought) and eggshells (cute but impractical) . I was fully expecting a paper mache option to mold your own cups or pots, at the very least. Being unsatisfied and having a rudimentary understanding about how to make paper, I stumbled through this on my own.

I took a couple of cardboard boxes out of the recycling and started tearing them up. I then soaked the cardboard.

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While soaking the cardboard, I again researched how to add more structure to the cups. I was afraid that the moment I added water, they would fall apart. I saw some suggestions online about added dryer lint to as a way to make paper. I figured that since it was not paper, it might add firmness to my cups. I went to my dryer and grabbed a thick wad of lint and threw it in my soaking paper. Too late I realized what a bad idea that was…especially if I were actually making paper to give away. My dryer lint is full of cat hair since I have two of the furry little beasts. However, since these were ideally just going in the ground, I was still hopeful the lint–hair and all–would add structure. I added more water and then threw in about a quarter cup of flour on a completely untested theory that it would make the paper harden more (a la paper mâché). I then threw it all in the blender.

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Careful if you add lint, the stuff tends to wind around the blades kind of like the underside of a vacuum. When done blending, I then had a bowl of really awful looking stuff.

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It felt really gross. Kids would probably love this project.

As I mentioned above, the biggest challenge I faced was how to make pot shapes that I considered big enough plant in. The best solution I could come up with was using these silicone cupcake molds. They were a lot smaller than I would have wanted, but I figured that seedlings don’t get too big before you stick them in the ground. (Based on this thinking, I don’s know why i insisted the egg carton was too small… maybe I just wanted to make pressed paper pots.) I figured that the silicone would peel easily from the dried paper and I wasn’t bringing other waste into the mix. If I hadn’t gone with those, I would have tried to use plastic cups… as long as I was recycling them (saving them from the trash to reuse and/or continued to use them afterwards.) If you go out and buy the plastic cups for the sole purpose of making these and then toss them out afterwards, you’re defeating the purpose of making recycled projects and should just use the plastic cups as planters directly.

The first couple cups I tried to make free form by pressing small sections onto the mold. But then I figured out that I could just use an empty mold to squeegee out the water and help shape the mold I was working on. I made sure to apply to pulp thickly to avoid thin spots and proved enough support.

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The entire process was a bit labor intensive, but in the end I was hopeful. My husband, on the other hand, was very skeptical. I started to blog right away about these, even as my little cups sat there all soggy and sad looking. I told him that I felt confident that they would dry…but I honestly had no idea what would happen once I added dirt and water.

Sure enough, the cups dried beautifully in about three days. I would have liked to have left them outside in the warm sun to dry faster, but it’s April in Illinois, and warm sun is scarce. I might have tried baking them to dry them out more quickly, but I remembered the hairy lint and knew that would be a smelly, bad idea.

Alas, I have not really provided a precise recipe or method, either. More like an idea and a plan. I would love feedback if anyone out there plays around with the idea. I don’t know if the flour and lint are necessary, but I feel that they helped make a sturdier end-product.

It is important for me to consider how cost effective these projects are. But the costs are not all measured in money. I would attempt this project again because I saved money, and found a good use of waste materials, and produced something using no emissions.

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I am going to plant them and report back how well they hold up! I hope to soon show you pictures of little seedlings!

Going Paper(towel)less

I always considered myself a rebel within my family for buying cheap paper towels. My sis, for example, is a paper towel snob and always has nice, thick paper towels. My mom, while not as particular, was fanatical about keeping them in the house, always. Her day would be immediately ruined if she realized that she was out of paper towels. I was somewhere much further down the spectrum (towards the less crazy end) but sheepishly admit that I never considered giving them up–even my really cheap, thin ones.

As I assessed the paper waste I was producing, I realized that paper towels were a sizable chunk. So I decided to make the commitment to using less. The obvious solution was switching to washable towels.

I resisted this idea for quite a long time because I bought into the idea that re-used towels would just be spreading germs all over the place. Modern marketing has done its job on me. (I mean, when I saw the new disposable towels for the bathroom, I thought for the briefest moment that I had to have them. But seriously, is it that much work to change out the bathroom hand towel? And for the most part, it’s just me and my husband…and we do things a lot more personal than share hand towels, so…no, I did not have to have this new product.)

My first foray into replacing disposable paper towels was a failure. I was in a neat, little shop I frequently frequented and came upon this seemingly brilliant product: Jagneus Design dish cloths. The product came in a pack of three, was eco-friendly and a bit over-priced, so I thought, “this has to be good!” Plus, is was Swedish, and they make nice things, right? The idea with these is that you use them, wash them, and when you are done, they are compostable. They are made of cotton and cellulose.

The problem was that they were incredible stiff unless fully wet, and I was trying to avoid constantly wet towels. Even if they were supposed to dry quickly, quick wasn’t a few minutes. So you were constantly messing with a wet towel, or a stiff towel. Maybe I just didn’t “get” them, but they weren’t for me. I don’t feel bad about this. The company seems to do just fine, and they should…charging what they do for a dish towel.

So I spent the same amount of money at Kohl’s and got a pack of 12, 100% cotton towels. They were just like the face towels I had purchased a couple years before, except in the kitchen section. And from I understand, these kind of towels are bio-degradable as well. Though on this issue, I will follow up because I am a bit skeptical.

As to my transition, I have certain rules. This section is for friends that come over so you don’t think I have a gross house. I have plenty of towels so that I don’t run out before I wash the lot of them, which is about every two weeks. I basically use a different towel every day. I only use counter towels for the counter and floor towels for the floor and I don’t use them for drying dishes. If I wipe up milk or clean up after meat, the towel goes in the dirty bin right away. The towels are never allowed to sit there sopping wet. To me, wet equals a bacteria breeding ground.

The pack of twelve set me back about $10 and I had some random other small towels, though I know it can be done more cheaply with a bit more investigation and planning. I am not counting the money spent on the Jagneus product– I am going to consider that as a donation to a green company. Anyhow, seeing as how I was going through a roll of paper towels a week, at about a buck if i was lucky, and now one roll lasts approximately a month, I feel that it is a worthwhile investment and a valuable effort. I’m not down to zero paper towels because every once in a while there is the warm cat puke or gross thing that comes out of the clogged drain that I just don’t want to mess with, and I tend not to buy napkins, which my mom just doesn’t understand. I am doing better, which meets my goal: to keep improving and reducing.

Feed the Worms

I am going to be honest with my readers–which at this point is probably just my mom and my sisters–and admit that I have only become “enlightened” recently. Rather than “enlightened”, my readers–again, see above–might say smug (I do drive a Prius), self-righteous, and odd (I think only my mom thinks that), but I really do feel that I was so wasteful–and still am–and that it is my individual responsibility to do better. Worm composting was one of my first efforts. I had heard about this concept of having worms inside your house and thought that it was a bit too icky. Not that I am squeamish about worms. I love to get my hands in the dirt and worms are like little gold nuggets when you like to garden–grubs are another story … vile, disgusting things. Anyhow, a friend that works in horticulture mentioned a book called, “The Worms Eat My Garbage'”. Apparently you can have these little red worms in your house (or more realistically, your basement or garage) and they will consume your veggie scraps, paper, coffee grounds, tea leaves, card board, leaves, dryer lint, etc. They would leave behind thick, rich compost. I thought this was amazing but what I was skeptical of was the smell. But I did the research and decided that enough seemingly legitimate persons assured me that it would not smell like garbage.

I took the plunge and ordered a kit. I saw a lot of make your own options but I knew myself…I needed the process to be as simple as possible or I would never “harvest” any compost. The one I bought was from Hayneedle and I not only highly recommend the product but also this company. Phenomenal customer service. I had to purchase the worms separately since they are special. You can neither just dig them up from your backyard nor release them into the wild. At least not in Illinois.

I had also done quite a bit of research on what to feed them and fretted a lot about this. In the end, I did not buy anything special for them to start with, but just made a bed of moist, shredded paper and dumped the worms in. The worms came with some dirt, which was recommended as an additive in a small dose. From then on, I added my scraps, coffee grinds, tea leaves, some cardboard from dry good boxes, grass clippings, leaves, egg shells, dryer lint and some yard waste.

Initially I was pretty concerned about the size of the “food” and would spend a lot of time cutting it up. I had also read that some people microwaved the scraps to make them mushy. The latter always sounded kind of gross and the former soon got old. Overall, here are some things I have learned about my worm farm:

1) they do not really eat eggshells. They may really like them as I have read, but unless you are wiling to pulverize them, then pass them up. They do not consume the hand-crushed variety and when you harvest your compost there will be pieces of egg shells throughout.
2) you really should keep a scrap container by your sink or prep area to encourage collection of scraps. Otherwise you will not feed them and it seems that the more you feed them, the more compost you get. I have read that they can handle up to a pound a day. I have no idea if this is true, but I don’t really exceed this, if averaged out. It is pretty obvious, though, that the worms cannot handle every ounce of compostable material that comes out of my house. If I want to get rid if every cardboard box, every bit of junk mail and shredded document, not to mention raked leaves, garden refuse and grass clippings, I have to commit to outdoor composting.
3) Worm composting is a compliment to outdoor composting because even if they could handle all the volume, they can’t handle anything even remotely woody or tough, like carrot and zucchini tops.
4) The worms survive just fine in my garage through the winter. It is attached to the house, and partially insulated, but it does get down to the 20’s in there. Also, it is sweltering in the summer. They do just fine.
5) Always avoid milk products and meat. They will spoil and stink, and, I hear, attract unwanted bugs. Nonetheless, you will get bugs in there. Probably little fly type things. Not a big deal.
6) Avoid throwing seeds in there or they will sprout. Unless you want them to sprout, then throw seeds in there.
7) keep a couple of gallon jugs around for easy access to worm tea. My worm factory has a spigot on the front, but honestly, nothing has ever come out of it. I think worms clog it up. Or my husband’s car tapped it one too many times. But a couple scoops of compost and the rest filled with tap water makes an excellent, nutritious drink for houseplants.
8) Kids love worms. And it is such a neat way to teach them some basic biology and science. Get a worm composted and you may be able to avoid getting a dog.