Paper cuts


I first became an environmental activist in 7th grade. I completed a homework assignment for Mrs. Dibbs’ science class on the blank side of a printed piece of paper that would have otherwise been thrown away. Mrs. Dibbs praised me for the content of my work, but docked me half a grade for poor presentation. Despite my effort to explain how saving paper helped protect forests, Mrs. Dibbs would not remove the minus in my grade.

We have come a long way since then. People are much more aware of the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle mantra. One can see it in the popularity of curbside recycling programs, the growing market for paper made with 100% post-consumer waste, and the wider use of paper recycling bins in office settings.

In the last few months, I have noticed a new series of practices that collectively could save a lot more paper:

  • In the latest step forward in online banking, every business (e.g., phone, utility, insurance, etc.) that used to send me a paper bill now offers a way to receive the bill electronically. I’ve gone paperless with a noticeable drop in the amount of mail that comes in the house. My local bank also allows customers to deposit checks by feeding them directly into ATMs without using envelopes.
  • Catalog Choice is a new nonprofit that allows people (600,000 and counting) to request that merchants stop sending catalogs to them.
  • My daughter’s school replaced its paper-laden sign-up process for school lunches with an electronic system that gets the job done more efficiently.
  • My college alma mater recently informed me that materials for alumni rep elections will now arrive electronically — unless you opt-in for paper.
  • The paper vs. plastic debate at grocery stores has increasingly been resolved by people choosing “neither” and using canvas bags instead. San Francisco has accelerated this shift by banning plastic bags at supermarkets and pharmacies.

Are you seeing these same trends? If you know of other paper-saving opportunities, please post them below. And if you happen to know Mrs. Dibbs (or someone like her), please tell her that Reduce, Reuse, Recycle has gone mainstream.

Photo available under Creative Commons license from Flickr user Daquella manera.

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  1. Anonymous - February 25, 2008

    It’s also the paper markets are really good right now. China’s buying all the poor quality paper, and good paper is going for hundreds of $/ton in the US. You can get paid for sending it away!
    If your wastehauler isn’t paying you (well, your town or business) for the paper, you should look into another hauler.
    And don’t forget that many other things can be recycled.

  2. Aaron A. - February 26, 2008

    I heart online banking. Not only does it save paper, but it saves me the trouble of remembering due dates (a significant concern for us absent-minded types). I now write one check per month. I’d like to convert the last one to electronic payment, but since my landlord isn’t a merchant, the bank sends him an e-mail stating, “your tenant has money for you; please to be inputting your bank account number.” Not terribly convincing.
    Also, how sensitive is paper recycling to contamination? I know that if even a small amount of the wrong type of plastic gets into a batch, the whole thing could be ruined. My conundrum is that I want to recycle my junk mail (already reduced, thanks to GreenDimes), but most of the envelopes include plastic film windows, or fake credit cards held on with some strange rubbery adhesive. Would those ruin the batch, or is “mixed paper” more forgiving?
    — A.

  3. Adam Stein - February 26, 2008

    Hey Aaron —
    I don’t have a great answer for you, but where I live you can throw those envelopes with the plastic windows in with the rest of the paper. This might vary by region, so your best bet is probably to check out the web site for your local recycling program (if such a thing exists).
    – Adam

  4. Klockarman - February 26, 2008

    As for the on-line bill pay you can thank human ingenuity and market competition, rather than governmental coercion for this miracle that has saved all of us time, and has saved precious resources.
    Regarding the “green” canvas shopping bags, they haven’t proven popular in my neighborhood. A personal story: Six months ago, our local Safeway store gave away the new canvas bags for about a week to anyone who shopped in the store, and encouraged people to use them. Last week we stopped in to buy some wine for a party, and bought the “six-pack” of wine to get a discount. They were giving away these “green” canvas re-usable bags in the wine dept. for the customers to put their wine in. When we got to the cashier, she said, “Wow, you’re the first people I’ve seen that has brought their bags back to use instead of the paper or plastic.” We hadn’t, or course. But the point is that (at least in our neighborhood) nobody is using them. Whoever wants to use them, go ahead. I just find them incredibly inconvenient, and that I’ve got too many other things in my life to remember.
    However, if I just buy one or two items, I usually decline the bag offered – not for environmental reasons, but just because I don’t need any more clutter in my life, and it’s one less thing I have to throw in the garbage or recycle later.

  5. Owen Johnson - February 27, 2008

    Whole Foods in Providence, RI, is going plastic bag free and will only provide paper bags to shoppers.

  6. Eric George - February 27, 2008

    Along the lines of online banking, the bank I use, USAA Federal Savings Bank, allows you to deposit your checks online using your scanner! This way not only do you not waste any additional paper but you also waste no gas going to the bank or ATM. And it is SO time saving too! Hopefully other banks will begin offering this feature as I believe USAA only offers this feature to people with insurance policies through them.

  7. Stephen Moriarty - February 27, 2008

    I cut the plastic from envelopes and shred all junk mail and personal documents with a diamond cut shredder. I add this to my compost pile. This greatly reduces the chance of identity theft. I also like the idea of Instant Recycling on the spot.

  8. Shimon - February 27, 2008

    In order to really go paperless one needs tools. One of the new tools I would suggest is 42Tags which is for home and small office use.
    The price is ridiculous.

  9. Heidi - February 27, 2008

    This is a great topic and thanks for the links to stop junk mail and catalogs!
    I was wondering about how to stop getting phone books- we never use and do just recycle them but what a waste! I have tried to ask our phone company to stop delivering them but sometimes we get them from other people then our local phone company and our local phone company has not been quick to give us a way out! Any tips?

  10. Michael Jessen - February 27, 2008

    I deal with a credit union in Nelson, BC Canada.
    When I go to make a cash withdrawal from the ATM I never choose the fast cash option since it automatically gives a paper receipt. By choosing withdrawal I get asked whether I want a receipt or not. Of course I say no. Many businesses with point of sale machines now have the option of not printing a copy of the receipt if the customer doesn’t want it.
    According to Market Watch, if everyone in the United States would select the no-receipt option at the ATM, it would save a roll of paper more than two billion feet long, or enough to circle the equator 15 times.
    This is just one little way we can all make a big difference. Just say no to receipts!

  11. Aaron A. - February 28, 2008

    As for the on-line bill pay you can thank human ingenuity and market competition, rather than governmental coercion for this miracle that has saved all of us time, and has saved precious resources.
    As much as certain talking heads would like to frame conservation as a political issue, businesses exist to serve the needs of the public. Businesses make money by identifying a problem, need, or want, and providing solutions. As long as we want eco-friendly products and services, businesses will step in to provide those products and services.
    The key, of course, is maximizing the impact by getting as many people onboard as possible. Fortunately, as is the case with online banking, the eco-friendly solution is often the time-saving or cost-saving solution as well.
    — A.

  12. Anonymous - March 3, 2008

    As for reusable bags, I take pride in using mine frequently, from buying groceries and other kinds of shopping, to transporting household items.
    I detest the plastic bag and everything it stands for (cheap, petrochemical/oil reliance, and wasteful consumption.) Even if they are recyclable, far fewer plastic bags actually get recycled than are manufactured. I prefer the paper bag to plastic on the basis of biodegradability, but unfortunately there is a higher cost of energy to make and ship these. Reusable bags are by far the most valuable way to go!
    I hold myself responsible to draw attention to the issue in my neighborhood. If people don’t see others reusing bags, they’re not going to catch on. It’s in sharing the message and actively showing that we care, that we have the power to influence people and change the world.
    And on a note of “inconvenience”: All it takes is a little time and conviction to establish a new habit. First you have to collect the bags, next to put them in your car, and lastly to remember to bring them into the store with you. To me, that’s not really asking a lot, especially considering just how much I want to make a difference in the climate crisis. And to make an impact starts with lots of little changes.
    It’s time we prioritize our lives and see just where a clean, healthy Earth lies. Without one doesn’t make much sense to the possibility of having a healthy life of our own, now does it?

  13. Debbie - March 5, 2008

    I keep a couple of cloth bags filled with smaller plastic and paper bags that I use when going to the farmer’s market but I don’t like to use them at the supermarket because they don’t stand up straight and they are so big that they get too heavy when filled with things like milk or canned goods.
    My Kroger supermarket has a “bag-sense” policy. They take 5-cents off my bill for each bag I bring back to reuse. I keep a bunch of double paper bags in the back of my Prius and always bring two or three of them with me to Kroger (for a credit of 20 to 30 cents). They last forever when they are doubled, they stand up nicely and hold a lot, and I prefer carrying them in my arms up my long flight of steps. If they eventually get a little torn, I use them to store and recycled mixed paper. I’ve told several people in the checkout line that I’m getting money back by reusing my bags – it encourages them to do it too.
    Incidentally, when I lived in England twenty years ago, all the shops charged 10p (nearly 20 cents at the time) for each new plastic bag. The bags were rather small and much more durable than the ones our supermarkets use and you can bet that just about everybody saved and reused them but I can remember how those plastic handles cut into my hands when I walked home from the central market place.
    There is no one best solution that fits everybody – that’s what makes this blog so interesting!

  14. Trace - March 6, 2008

    I agree with Anonymous. The act of bringing your own bags to the market is an easy habit to learn. I keep a series of reusable cloth bags that I have collected from several stores…Trader Joes, Whole Foods, etc. I keep these in my car for ALL of my shopping…not just groceries. I even took my own bag into the Goodwill store this weekend. When I return home with my purchases, it is easy to haul everything up in one trip because the bags are so much stronger then paper bags. After I have emptied the reusable bags, I put all of them into one bag and hang it on the doorknob. In the morning, when I go to my car to go to work, I grab the bags and throw them in the trunk. It is so easy. And now, it is not only a new habit…but a personal mission.

  15. zmanmom - March 7, 2008

    well, this thread has gone from paper recycling to cloth bags. I can comment on both. My town, HOLLYWOOD, FL has, for some unknown reason, decided to no longer have drop-offs for paper recycling. It was inconvenient at best but still, an option. Now I have to drive to an industrial area in Ft. Lauderdale to recycle all the paper junk. It would prpbably not be worth it, environmentally, with the cost of gas, but I have a hybrid, so I do it. I am going to start demanding answers from the commissioners as to why they stopped the paper recycling, and try to do something about it. As for the cloth bags, I also keep mine in the trunk of the car and use them all the time. It did take a while to make it second nature, but now it is. I was called “bag lady” by one of the baggers in Publix the other day and was proud of it. I see a few people doing the same and hope it catches on. I also heard that Publix was going to get rid of the plastic bags as they were a huge expense (petroleum). The other distressing thing is that when you take the plastic bags back to recycle they are used for plastic lumber, so it’s not really recycling in the best sense of the word.

  16. Maggie - April 26, 2008

    I also live in Hollywood, Florida and where I shop for produce on Sunday mornings, Josh’s on the Hollywood beach boardwalk behind the old hotel, is quite refreshing. Most bring their own shopping carts or load up a cardboard box previously used for transporting the fresh produce. This is a very eco-friendly crowd. Mostly vegetarians like myself. The romaine can last me sometimes 3 weeks, the cherry tomatoes always taste like candy, the dried mango with chili is “to die for” and what is not sold goes to charity. I don’t work for Josh, nor does he know who I am, but I must say for all those on this page. It is a delightful shopping experience and you will be supporting your local organic farmers.
    Now about junk mail. I want to get off everyones list. If I want something I know where to go or where to find it. It kills me to see all this paper wasted. Can somebody point me in the right direction?