(Originally published on Medium.)
My journey of low waste life has a very simple and boring start — reusing papers. When I was little, my father taught me by example while I wasn’t even aware of what’s good or bad about it. I just followed his advice. Sometimes I just didn’t care.
We regularly received documents, letters, bills, in our mailbox that accumulated over time. Most of them were A4-size papers that were used only one side. My father would pile them up, bound at the corner or the top and used the empty side like a notebook. I don’t recall any time that he bought a brand new, well-made notebook from a store. He is a real resource optimizer. Reusing paper this way is such old fashioned. Nothing exciting about it. But without realizing, I have adopted this mindset little by little ever since.
As a teenager, I sometimes bought a new notebook because it was so cute, well-designed and yes, flawless. But, for some reason, I never felt as great as when I reuse papers. After finishing up the notebook (sometimes I didn’t even finish it!), I didn’t throw it away because there might be some information I needed later. I kept it somewhere knowing it would be a waste in the future. At the same time, those old papers, both meaningless letters and school files I no longer need were still there, on my shelf, in my drawer, waiting to be used and taking up more space.
I was exhausted every time I went through those big piles of paper. I tore down bound documents, separated them piece by piece, kept the ones that had half or full empty side. In the end, I always got a large number of papers that can be reused for notebooks and would last for a long time. Then I questioned myself why I wasted my money buying new notebooks that would waste even more resources? I keep asking myself the same question whenever I have the urge to buy a new notebook. It has taught me to ignore the appearance of things, and focus on my purpose and their functionality instead. These days, the only type of notebook I buy is planners. For the rest of the writing purposes, I make my own notebooks from used papers.
Why should we care so much about the use of paper products?
I’m a person who is against single-use plastic, but when it comes to paper products, I thought of them positively because I was told that they can be recycled and compostable after all. Until I did a deeper research, it changed my whole perspective.
Small Footprint Family Blog shared a very insightful information about the facts of paper production that has opened my eyes. I believe it will also be useful to all of us, so I gathered it up and summarized them here.
- Paper production causes massive footprint. Paper companies use large amount of energy and natural resources throughout paper making processes. They cut down trees, transform them to little pieces, transport to factories, produce paper (use water, heat, chemicals), distribute and sell to the end customers. These processes are not only harmful to the factory workers’s health, but also people who live downstream from the factory. Even worse, planting trees for producing paper is way different than planting trees for the sake of nature. It takes lots of pesticides to keep trees free from bugs or insects, so animals cannot habitat in this kind of forest. And these trees cannot be beneficial to the environment.
- Paper is one of the biggest kinds of waste in landfills. I’m not surprised to hear it. Despite a nerd who lives a low waste life and never signs up for commercial catalogs, still I receive tons of paper catalogs and pre-qualified credit card offers. They send those stuff to people aggressively, almost every month, especially the pre-qualified thing. And they make it hard to opt out permanently! I was mad to see how many papers are used for that purpose. According to the article, around 1 billion trees worth of paper are thrown away every year in the US, and more than 40% of waste in landfills are commercial and residential paper waste. If that is not bad enough, paper releases methane (a greenhouse gas that is 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide). This means, eliminating paper waste will decrease the level of methane emission effectively.
- Recycling should be the last solution. Reduce, reuse, recycle. We hear that often. We often ignore the first two stages and rely on the last stage, which is recycling. Since I was a kid, recycling has always been encouraged. I was made to believe that it is an ideal solution for waste issues. It sounded like we could use as many recyclable products as we want because nothing would go to waste. That was, well, partially true. But here are the reasons why it is not the best solution, especially these days.
- Paper recycling processes take so much energy. From transporting, sorting, storing, cleaning, pulping, and a lot more stages before it comes to a finished recycled product. Not just paper, the more things you recycle, the more facilities, space, resources, energy are used to process. As each type of materials needs to be processed separately, waste department needs to provide more bins, bring more trucks, find more space to store those things. It’s a lot of work.
- Recycling is not cheap. If recycling department assesses and finds out that recycling is more expensive than dumping the materials in landfills, then they are dumped in landfills. I was shocked to know this. A lot of us feel good and proud when we recycle things. We are like ‘Hey look! I recycle! I help the poor environment.’, while in fact, not all of them get recycled.
- Recycling can cause more problems to the environment, if not done right. Recycling companies can leave debris of materials on the streets while collecting trash from houses. When breaking down materials, it produces pollutants. Sometimes, they even bleach papers by adding chemicals. This not only endangers environment, but also hurts workers who do the job as well.
- Recycling can increase low quality jobs. Creating jobs for the community is a good thing, but low quality jobs for people to deal with trash, recyclables, contamination and chemicals should be something to avoid.
Going through these ugly truths about paper production and recycling, I can feel your frustration. The short and sweet answer that is best for today’s situation- first, reduce and then reuse. Reduce the use of paper products as much as you can. When we do this, the demand for paper production will surely drop. Second, reuse the products you already have as best as you can and in every way that you can. When we do this, we appreciate every bit of resources and materials used to make that product. We will find all reasons not to buy new things. We will take good care of it, fix it, repair it to the point that we cannot use it anymore. Then we take it to recycle.
There are so many fun and easy ways to reduce and reuse paper in your daily life. You can use your own creativity and you will have that inspiration to keep it going sustainably. First, let me share a few tips on how I reduce it.
- Go for e-statement/ bills. This helps cut down the amount of letters in your inbox and reduces carbon footprint from shipping. Most financial and credit card companies seem to have this option that you can set on your account.
- Buy second-hand books. I used to be obsessed with the feel of new books in my hand. I loved the smell of newness when flip through pages and the perfection of the binding that I took time to choose from the shelf. I was never a fan of second-hand books until I was hunting for textbooks when I first enrolled in a US institution. New textbooks prices are terrifying. I cannot always read online textbooks either because I cannot take notes on my tablet. So, second-hand textbooks saved my butt. And now I LOVE all sorts of second-hand books. They are not only cheaper than the new ones, but also they are products that already exist and can be used over and over again. To make even less carbon footprint, visit second-hand bookstores or shops in your neighborhood instead of buying online. I know someone says Kindle! Yes, that’s another good option. If you want to purchase another tablet for reading tons of books while able to pack so light when traveling, then go for it. I like the fact that it is designed for reading but I still have another tablet I rarely use and lots of books I haven’t finished.
- Swap to recycled toilet paper. I know I said earlier about the disadvantages of paper recycling. But after all, recycled products waste less resources than brand new products. I currently use toilet paper that is 100% made from recycled paper. It is free from inks, dyes, scents, and most importantly, plastic! The good thing about zero-waste movement nowadays is that more companies try to offer more sustainable alternatives to consumers. So, choose the ones made from post-consumer or recycled paper, and if possible, no plastic packaging.
Now, let me share my fun ideas of reusing paper.
- Make notebooks. Yep. That’s what this article is all about. This article was also drafted out of a reused paper notebook. It doesn’t look pretty. There are many flaws in it, but the idea behind it is so purposeful. It’s very easy and essential for taking bigger steps in reducing trash. The way I make my notebooks is the same way my father did — gathering the papers and binding them at the upper left corner or along the left edge of the papers. I would make it as thick as staple pins can hold.
- When print, use both sides. Right before printing, I’d make sure if this document really needs to be printed. I’d use new papers only for official or important documents that I have to mail or give to somebody. I’ll print on both sides if appropriate. For other purposes, I always reuse old papers that have one side empty.
- Wrap presents. I never get bored when it comes to the season of giving gifts especially when I have lots of papers to play with. What I do is painting the empty side of paper with coffee to make it pretty before use it to wrap a present. And no, I won’t buy a ribbon or bow to decorate the present like a traditional way. It’s boring to me. I like to create my own decoration from wrapping and folding paper which makes the gifts so unique.
- Wrap you used tampons or pads. Dear ladies, If you switch to using a menstrual cup or reusable pads completely, that’s awesome! But if not, this tip is for you. After using both sides of the paper, before dumping them into the recycle bin, use them to wrap your used tampons and pads. I use 2 papers each time, including some toilet paper, wrap it like you wrap a roti or burrito. Then tuck the edge of the paper inside at the end to prevent from unfolding. It blocks the smell really well. But it’s always better to keep them in a separate bag.
Here are my final thoughts…
We use paper products every single day. Sometimes we don’t value them as much because they are cheap and affordable. That’s why we don’t care much when we throw them away. I hope my article helps you see the behind the scene of what it takes to make each product and what happens if you just throw it away in the trash without thinking. And what will happen if everybody thinks and does the same way? The consequence is scary. Being more thoughtful today, at least with one more thing — paper. It will help the planet tremendously. Keep the process simple, like making a notebook, so you can start it right away and make it a part of your daily life.