Hiking the Junk Paper Trail

This post is by contributing blogger Daniella Svoboda Schmidt, an experienced public school master teacher, a graduate of our M.Ed. program, and a humane educator specializing in engaging others in the positive power of food citizenship through The Thinkatarian Food Club. She currently lives in Germany with her husband and son.

How ubiquitous paper is in our everyday lives, from the daily newspaper, to paper packaging, books, magazines, and the "to do" notepad stuck to the fridge -- not to mention all the paper we use to keep clean.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the typical American uses on average the equivalent of one 100-foot-tall Douglas Fir per year in paper and wood products. It is easy to forget the obvious--that all that paper is more than just paper. How many of us really think of our pad of sticky notes as a part of a former tree, a 100-foot-tall Douglas Fir to be exact?

I find it quite a tragedy to know that the take-out menu for the local pizza joint that gets shoved through the mail slot uninvited was once a carbon-uptaking, photosynthesizing, air-cleaning, ground-stabilizing, soil-enriching, water-cleaning, fruit- or nut-producing (you get the point) living being with its own purpose in the web of life. And now it has the banal task of advertising the pizza deal of the month with free delivery for orders of over $15. And over our lifetimes, each of us uses a small forest of trees for our important and, far too often, mundane paper needs.

Of course, most of us who live in urban areas can easily recycle our paper, and we Americans have made great strides in keeping paper out of our landfills to be reused in new paper products. According to the EPA, Americans now recycle about 60% of their paper. But as always, we cannot rely on recycling and think that it is enough. Reducing our paper usage, and reusing the paper we have used--like using the other side of a sheet of paper to print and copy on--need to be steps that occur before recycling. Recycling is our last resort, and the last step in the "reduce, reuse, recycle" mantra. Some even argue that paper recycling is problematic and that the benefits of recycling paper may not outweigh the environmental costs of sorting, transporting, and processing it into usable paper again.

Now that I have lived outside of the United States (in Japan, and currently, Germany), I have some perspective on how much unsolicited paper (aka Douglas Firs disguised as junk mail) came to my home back in Seattle. From catalogs to the daily credit card offers, to credit score reports, loan offers, surveys, etc., my mailbox was inundated daily. I never realized that this was unusual until I moved abroad. Both in Japan and Germany, I receive a mere two or three pieces of mail...now brace yourself: A WEEK. I find it such a pleasure to go to the mailbox and find it empty, as it most often is. What a refreshing contrast to the overwhelming assortment of oddly sized envelopes and slippery magazines spilling out when I opened the mailbox each day back in the U.S. And, going through the mail after a long vacation is an experience I care not to revisit! All those beautiful trees for a pile of junk mail that I never wanted in the first place.

Two years ago, I contemplated a useful, non-material, and environmentally friendly gift to give my family back in the States at holiday time. I came across 41pounds.org, a non-profit organization that serves as your advocate for reducing your junk mail by 80-95% for a five year period. My family loved the gift of virtually no junk mail over the next five years, and, forgive me if I go out on a limb here, but I believe the Douglas Firs are pretty pleased with my gift as well.

If you'd like some additional ideas for stopping junk mail and thereby reducing your paper consumption Adam Bjerk has a post with some useful suggestions. How wonderful it would be if each of us got just the mail that we really needed!

When making small changes in my daily life to be kinder to the planet, like reducing my paper consumption, it helps for me to focus on a poignant fact or a visualization that reminds me of how important what I am doing is, though it may seem like a small contribution to conservation at that moment. From now on, when I'm taking that extra effort to politely refuse some unneeded paper napkins or reusing my paper bags for the umpteenth time before I recycle them, I will picture in my mind a regal Douglas Fir standing proudly in a forest and know that I am doing my part to save it from other far less noble reincarnations.

Image courtesy of Wunderboy via Creative Commons.

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