It's hard to get through an entire day without paper

January 20, 2000

I can handle a day without orange juice or a day without sunshine, but it's very difficult to get through a whole day without paper.

cont. from lifestyle

I decided to give that a try after reading an article recently about the enormous appetites we Americans have for paper products. It said that each and every one of us uses more than 700 pounds of paper per year. The average person in India uses less than 10 pounds, while worldwide, the average is about 112 pounds.

Our paper use has increased six-fold since 1950, and it's increasing every day. On top of that, making paper from wood means cutting down forests and using lots of chemicals, water and energy. It also creates a lot of pollution in the process.

And this is to create a product that we generally discard after one use.

Almost 40 percent of what we Americans put into our landfills is paper.


Of course, I decided I had to take care of this problem single-handedly, so I picked a day on which I would try to use absolutely no paper.

I figured right off it would have to be a Sunday, when I didn't have any mail delivered. The article said I get 850 pieces of junk mail every year. I figure I've cut that down to about 800 pounds, but that's still a lot of paper!

Anyway, I was OK until I went to make coffee and realized I couldn't use a paper coffee filter. Fortunately I had a reusable one made of hemp, so that saved me. I spilled some coffee and couldn't use a paper towel to wipe it up, but I had plenty of cloth rags.

I don't use paper plates, so that was no problem. I couldn't have my favorite cereal for breakfast since it comes in a paper box, but I had another brand that comes in a plastic bag, so I lucked out again. My milk was in a plastic bottle, and I cheated on the sugar. It came in a paper bag, but I had just filled up my sugar bowl.

Eating the rest of the day was a bit tricky, since I couldn't use any prepared foods that came in paper packaging, but I had things like fresh vegetables, and bread in a plastic bag, so I managed. I felt a bit guilty about all the plastic I was relying on, but I decided to leave that guilt until another day. This day only had to be paper-free.

The hardest part for me was not being able to read. I could watch TV or a video, but to me that's not a good substitute. Oh well, it was just for one day.

I cheated once I started writing this column, since the article I'm referring to is printed on paper, and I took notes on paper. But I did this on the back of pieces of junk mail that I'd saved to use as scrap paper, and I knew I would recycle them, so I cut myself some slack for that.

I wrote the column on my computer, so I was safe there. I wasn't even tempted to print it out once it was finished, since my printer isn't working these days.

Having no printer has been a real eye-opener. It's SO easy just to print out anything. Now I can't print out anything, and I hope that when I do get my printer working again I'll give careful thought before printing out copies of anything.

It would really be tough to be paperless in a big office. It's in offices that most of the increase in paper consumption is occurring. Instead of creating the predicted "paperless office," computers and fax machines and copiers have led to dramatic increases in paper use. It's estimated that the amount of office paper used by each person in the civilian work force is 12,000 sheets a year!

A lot of steps can be taken to cut down at the workplace, such as using both sides of a piece of paper, but I wasn't going to worry about that this day. I was having enough trouble dealing with my home consumption.

Actually, I was able to do pretty well for one day, but it would be tricky to keep it up for long. But having done it, I hope I'll be more careful about my paper use in the future.

Besides reducing my consumption of paper, the best thing I can do is to buy paper that's made at least partly from recycled paper. Making paper from old paper takes a far less drastic toll on the environment than making paper from trees does. There's also paper available now that's made from materials other than wood.

And, of course, I'll keep on recycling all the paper that I use. I don't live in Hagerstown, where there's curbside pickup of mixed paper for recycling. But it's easy to take it to Hagerstown Recycling and Trucking on Mitchell Avenue.

I like to think that one day I'll buy some paper that has, somewhere inside it, a piece of paper that I recycled.

Dennis Shaw is a former Herald-Mail editor. Write to him at 12364 Harvey Road, Clear Spring, Md. 21722.

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