Friday, April 3, 2009

April Action Item: Go Paper-less

This month's Action Item is all about paper. Disposable paper items abound in western culture. They are designed for obsolescence. Sometimes their utility life from first use to disposal is mere seconds long. I want to challenge you this month to see paper products, especially those you pay for outright, in a new way. When you go to the supermarket and look at paper towels, toilet paper, paper plates and cups, and even "feminine hygiene products," you are looking at landfill. In other words, you're about to spend your hard earned money on garbage-to-be. Think about it: paper plate lying on the ground in a park - garbage; paper plate stacked up with other paper plates on the grocery store shelf - something you pay good money for. Does that make any sense to you? This is definitely one of those areas where frugality and ecological ethics match up very closely.

Sometimes we don't pay for paper explicitly. We get the paper for "free" with our purchase of coffee, fast food, or other convenience items. Needless to say, this is no bargain. Not only is the paper being consumed in a ridiculously frivolous fashion, but along the way you're paying a huge premium for the convenience of having food prepared for you, rather than making it at home.

Yet another form of paper consumption that I'm targeting for removal this month is junk mail, catalogs, and newspaper or magazine subscriptions. I've blogged before about all the good reasons for getting off catalog mailing lists. If you're trying to trim the budget (and these days, who isn't?), you don't need temptation delivered to your door on a daily basis.

So without further ado, here are several ways to cut the paper out of your life and save some money in the process.

Newspaper - you're reading this online. Get your news online too or off the radio. Cancel your subscription and ask for a refund of the balance. If you use the coupons that come with the Sunday paper, see if a non-frugal friend or family member will save the coupon section for you. If you can't make that happen, at least cut your subscription back to just a Sunday delivery if possible.

Magazines - Do you really read the magazines that you subscribe to? If you do, and you learn something from them, great. See if there's anyone in your area who also reads the same magazine who might like to split a subscription. You'll save both money and paper. Even better, cancel the subscription and get the magazine from the library. Unless you're subscribing to a magazine that is so packed with useful information that you're certain to refer to it again and again, it's worth asking yourself if you really need to pay for a personal copy.

Napkins - I hereby give you permission to actually buy new cloth napkins if you don't already have some. If you're going to do so, I recommend you steer clear of white or very pale napkins, which will show stains the best. If you have the choice, go for napkins with a small pattern on them; they'll hide stains very well over the years. Choose a sturdy flat woven cotton cloth with good stitching at the seams. I suggest you buy one for every member in the family you have or plan to have, plus at least two more for guests. If you have no cloth napkins, and your birthday is this month, this is the perfect gift to ask for. They'd make nice housewarming gifts too.

Paper towels - There aren't too many tasks that really ought to be done with disposable paper. Cleaning up cat puke or other unmentionables may qualify. But those should be rare events. Use cleaning rags to wipe up most spills and to perform most cleaning chores. You can replace paper towels for some uses with pages torn from old phone books. Phone book pages work great for cleaning glass. They'll work for soaking up grease from fried foods too.

Junk mail - There's no reason to put up with junk mail. There are plenty of unsubscribe lists you can find online. Fewer catalogs in your mailbox mean less covetousness, fewer temptations to spend, and less clutter in your life.

Paper plates - Again, is there really any need? Even if you want to go on a picnic, re-usable plastic plates, or the new re-usable Bambu plates fill in just fine for disposable paper. There are some plastic picnic plates that can even stand up to the dishwasher. If paper plates fill a need in your life, see if the re-usable lightweight plates could step into that role.

Paper cups - I can't conceive of any real need for these at home. Again, if you picnic or camp a lot, durable plastic cups will serve. Be disciplined about using your own mug at the office water cooler, or if you're still indulging in cafe drinks.

Tampons or Sanitary Napkins - I know not every woman is going to be swayed, but I am totally converted to the use of the diva cup. Over at the Simple, Green, Frugal Co-op where I occasionally post, Eilleen discussed the re-usable cloth menstrual pads she uses, in conjunction with the diva cup. There's no question at all that women pay a lot of money to menstruate in mainstream fashion. When I debated buying a diva cup, a quick calculation told me I'd break even after eight months of using the cup versus tampons. If you're smart enough to switch to a diva cup in your early years, you'll probably save more than $1000 by the time you hit menopause. That's not a trivial amount of money, especially considering that the money is just paying for landfill. If your first reaction is squeamishness, try giving it a second or third thought.

Note pads and scratch paper - Okay, even when you've gotten off as many of the junk mailing lists as possible, you'll still get some unwanted mailings and then a few legitimate pieces of mail. Use the envelopes for your grocery lists, notes to family members, etc. This is a much better choice than actually paying for a small note pad. And if you open up that junk mail and find paper that only has printing on one side, you can use the other side for scrap paper too. Obviously, pay attention to what information might be printed on the used side. You might not want to lose a shopping list that has your financial information printed on the back. So just shred that stuff and use the form letters for your to-do lists. If the paper isn't folded or the folds won't be an issue, you can also use blank sides of full-sized paper in your computer printer for drafts or informal use.

Paper shopping bags - C'mon. You know the drill here. Instead of facing that familiar ethical dilemma between deforestation (paper bags) or albatross chick and sea turtle mortality (plastic bags), let yourself off the hook already and make a habit of canvas or recycled plastic shopping bags. Keep a few in your trunk, or wherever you'll remember them. It's not that hard. And it's becoming commonplace enough that you won't be mistaken some granola-munching, patchouli-smelling, Birkenstock-wearing hippie these days (if that concerns you). If you're fortunate, the store you shop at is forward-thinking enough to give you a small bag credit for providing your own bag.

Advanced Action Item: There's really no alternative item this month. Instead we have a few items that are for frugality/sustainability adepts. If all of the above is old hat for you, then you've probably already considered these options. I freely admit that I'm not yet at the point of committing to cloth toilet wipes. Since I don't have kids, the diaper issue isn't one I have to contend with. (For the record, my own infant years were spent in cloth diapers.) If you are still in the process of having babies, or if kids are in your future, consider the many advantages of cloth diapers, not least of which is the monetary savings. Trent at The Simple Dollar wrote up a cost comparison between cloth and disposable diapers. His conclusion was that he wished he'd put his first child in cloth diapers rather than waiting for the birth of his second child to make the switch.

For those of you who have been following along with these Frugal Action Items since the beginning of the year, how's it going? Have you noticed the savings? Have your efforts made a difference in your budgets or savings goals? Please chime in via the comment section.

New to these monthly Action Items? Catch up with more here:

January: Compact Fluorescent Bulbs & Hot Water Pipe Insulation
February: Kitchen Competence
March: Rein In Entertainment Spending
May: Solar Dryer
June: Raise the Deductible on Your Auto Insurance
July: Stay Cool Without Touching that Thermostat
August: Repair It!
September: Insulate
October: Preventative Health Care
November: Frugal Holiday Wish List
December: Plan Next Year's Garden


Anonymous said...

go diva's!

Anonymous said...

Right up my alley. We do all cloth, no paper or disposable anything. Well, we're in the same boat as you for the cloth toilet wipes. Still not sure I want to commit to that.

Even though this is something we already do, it's great to read other's doing it too and be encouraged!


Claire said...

I have to admit, I haven't been taking you up on all of your challenges. Jan: all our bulbs are CFLs already and we're moving soon, so didn't want to do the pipe insulation. Feb: I'm all the way up to making my own bread; want to learn how to make cheese, but not sure how useful it would be to us yet. March: Hardly spend anything on entertainment (basic cable only adds $5 to our internet bill, which we need to have for work).

But this month has some things that I can do, but am loathe to. I just don't know if I can give up my newspaper subscription. I love reading the paper everyday, and online just isn't the same thing. You're right about the magazine subscriptions - I only get a few (get the rest of those that I'm interested in from the library), but they should go. Don't use paper napkins, paper towels, paper plates, paper cups, sanitary products, real note pads, paper or plastic shopping bags. The junk mail that I get is used for scratch paper, and then recycled, but it would be interesting to see if I could get it reduced a bit.

As for the cloth toilet wipes...I don't think so. I've read about it before, but I just don't think I'm ready for it.

So thanks for all your suggestions! It makes me feel good to know that other people are on the same wavelength as me, and challenges me to do even more.

Unknown said...

i am looking for suggestions on how to cover food in the microwave. I don't want to use a plastic cover and was using paper towels.

Anonymous said...

Some great suggestions there. i already do - or am in the process if switching to all (except the cloth toilet wipes ;-). We use cloth nappies/diapers and I cannot believe what a waste of money disposables are.

S: I just put a plate over bowls/containers when microwaving. I do this also to cover food in the fridge as an alternative to plastic wrap.

Wendy said...

We were doing great. We had our garbage down to half a tall kitchen bag per week for our family of five. I use cloth and a Diva cup for my "time of the month." We use cloth napkins and real plates. We unsubscribed from the half a million catalogs we were getting, and as our shopping slowed, so did the slew of new publications to cross our threshold. Junk mail is down to one or two pieces a day from half a box full. Our one compromise is disposable TP, but it's 100% recycled paper.

Then, my oldest daughter, her husband and their one year old daughter moved in, and they're not "clothies" for anything :).

I think our challenge for this month will be to try to encourage my daughter and her family to accept at least one of the paperless challenges.

Lily Girl said...

Let's see, we already do not get a newspaper, opting instead for radio (NPR) and some internet and tv news sources. I only get a couple magazines, which I do use and which are not wholly conventional and consequently not carried by my library. We don't use napkins much of any kind, but I want to switch to cloth. I'm thinking it will be a good first sewing project for me. I actually had decided before reading this that reducing my paper towel usage was going to be my next big project. I went out and bought a big pack of bar towels so that I have plenty available and therefore remove my primary excuse. We don't get much junk mail at all, as we have put ourselves on the "do not mail/call" lists. The number of times a year we use disposable plates/cups I can count on 1 hand and usually because we are feeding more people than I have dishes for. I need to budget for the diva cup. I do use note paper quite a bit so I need to work on that, but I do mostly use my phone for grocery lists and such which has cut down my use of paper significantly. And finally, I have loads of reusable bags that I keep on my person or in our cars at all times.

Thanks for this great challenge!

Anonymous said...

As for cloth toilet wipes. . . I don't see why anyone who has ever cloth diapered would have a problem with this. As for others, why not try?! I currently live in the Middle East and most public restrooms (except in large malls that cater to Westerners) do NOT have toilet paper. They use a hose/sprayer next to the toilet--now that takes some getting used to! Paper towel is sometimes available to dry off with, but not usually. I have taken to keeping wet wipes with me whenever we travel :) But that too contributes to the landfill mess. Cloth wipes sound like a great idea. . . I might not be able to convince my husband, but if I get my small children hooked on them, they will be one generation that doesn't need to overcome the icky factor! If you're really worried about "germs" after washing, why not use a hot steam iron on them? Better yet, hang out to dry in the sun and let the UV do its trick :)

Thanks for the great post(s)! I find myself coming back to read your blog again and again. I've found so many wonderful ideas and much useful information! Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

Now Kate,

Here was your opportunity for sewing competency. How about whipping up some cloth napkins? Take a scrap & either fold over edges 2x or zig-zag or use a straight stitch and then pink. If you can't do mitered corners - and they take practice - well just don't put them out for company. Don't want to sound too sanctimonious. I use both paper plates & paper towels at times. Altho sometimes I substitute thin paper bags for the paper towels depending on use. For instance, wiping grease out of a cast iron skillet. I also use rags & cloth napkins. But I use paper too because I find that when I have to pick up pet hair I just can't the hair out of cloths after I've washed them.

future reference said...

I save my paper coffee cups and pint size ice cream containers for seedlings.

Maybe for one of your advanced/ alternative actions you could use "Start Your Own Seedlings." Except in the fortunate cases of having access to a local plant sale or organic green house, it is a major energy saver in terms of transport and makes the connection to self sufficiency and understanding our food sources stronger still.

Kate said...

Some excellent suggestions here in the comments section.

S, I think littleecofootprints' suggestion about the extra plate is a good one. From a frugality perspective, you could also substitute pages from an old phone book for a paper towel to avoid splatters in the microwave. It's still using paper, but it's paper that would otherwise just be recycled at best.

Anon1, that is an *excellent* point about those who have used cloth diapers. Thank you for making it. I haven't used any sort of diaper since I have no kids. But this does put the cloth wipes into a different perspective.

Anon2, you are absolutely right. I am seriously dragging my heels on the sewing competency project. It's just not something I want to tackle. But I will keep my eyes open for old sheets (preferably flannel) at a thrift shop, or wherever. That would be ideal I suppose. I suspect bed linens might be hard to come by though, since they're not things that many people would want to buy used. Particularly with the bedbug resurgence. I'll see what I can find.

FR, right there with you on reusing paper products and other "garbage" for gardening purposes. It's becoming something of a specialty of mine.

Saver Queen said...

Great suggestions. I made the conversion to paper towels but I admit I am a perpetrator in other ways. Thanks for some excellent reminders/suggestions of how to reduce paper waste!

Jeff9 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Carl said...

I definitely agree with reusing scrap paper. I keep a folder of A4 pages (with only one side used) next to our printer, so whenever I need to print something that won't be given to anyone else, it's close at hand.

Eventually, I expect that more people will make the switch to double-sided printing, which will make this useful only for those hardy souls willing to print on the same page twice. But until then, I only have to use fresh printer paper for important documents, like university assignments.

EmberRose said...

I have to get paper bags at least once a month. We line our trash bags with them for when things leak and we use them for the cats' mess when we clean the litter box.

Carl said...

Maybe those who aren't ready to switch to cloth toilet wipes (including myself) could aim to reduce the amount of toilet paper that they use. How much of it do you actually need, and how much do you use just because of the 'ick' factor?

After all, no matter how much or how little you use, you wash your hands straight afterward.

Jeff9 said...

You can almost eliminate toilet paper use with a hand bathroom bidet sprayer. We're talking clean, green and mean.