Paper, Water, and Unwanted Mail

Guess I have a lot to learn, not only about going green, but about blogging, too. I could rattle off a long list of examples, but to name one, I’ve been researching on the web about green living for several weeks now and just realized that any article ever published on-line since the beginning of the Internet could come up in a Google-search. The problem is that sometimes there isn’t a publication date anywhere. (Or maybe I just don’t know where to look.) Even though my blog is more like a series of essays blended into a quirky sort of memoir, I’d like to at least have up-to-date facts and accurate info.

On that note, I should also mention that in my last blog post I used the term ‘green infrastructure’ incorrectly. Turns out it’s not about companies setting up factories so recycling, low emissions, and other eco-friendly practices can become part of their operations. placesto gowith yourdad this father's day (Doesn’t it sound like it should be that, though?) It’s actually about water.

According to the EPA: green infrastructure  is when buildings are designed with ways to divert rainwater so it can be stored for later use.  It has nothing to do with paper products, like junk mail. Or does it?

Did you know that the water needs of the pulp and paper industry exceed those of most other businesses?  According to an article by Art Haddaway in  Industrial Water World, that’s because water is used in almost every one of the paper making processes; from digesting wood chips to make pulp, to washing and bleaching the material to get a nice white appearance, to steaming the sheets so they’re smooth when they dry. But most of the water consumption occurs during that first part, when they turn the wood to pulp. That tells me that recycling DOES help save water, as well as trees, because processing reclaimed paper requires less wood.

But there’s still all kinds of chemicals that the industry uses to bleach their products and treat them to prevent mold that can wind up in our  water ways. Those toxins can linger for many years. Paper mills are also the fourth largest producers of greenhouse gasses.

Sometimes my research leads me to haunting truths and it’s hard not to feel powerless. In fact, I had my first sleepless night in a long time after I read about how the EPA and watchdog groups had been after the paper industry since the 1980’s to adopt manufacturing methods that were gentler on the environment. Time and again the mills lobbied to resist legislation that would help the planet or found ways around the EPA guidelines and regulations. They dismissed the notion that they could be doing irreparable damage to our one and only world and harm all of us. (Thankfully, this has improved.)

But then I remembered that this green journey is about me learning about what I can do. Whether I’m remembering to bring my reusable shopping bags to stores, or setting up recycling bins for office paper and mixed paper at home, these little changes can add up to something that matters. They can also inspire others, like my husband, daughter, family, and friends. If enough people change some of their habits, routines, lifestyle choices to save the planet big things can happen.

In that vein, I’ve signed the registry, which will hopefully put a stop to my junk mail. I’ll let you know if it works. My husband said he’ll do it, too. Also, as bills and statements arrive, I look for ways to go paperless with each company. Most of the time, they make it easy.

Now, I’m off to learn how much of an impact my Bounty paper towels have on the planet. I’m hoping the answer will be something my husband will want to hear. I’ve planted the seed with him about possibly making a change. He didn’t say much. (That’s never a good sign.) Until next week.


Why doesn’t recycling pay?

I was thinking the other day about how writing this blog is helping me stay focussed on making my life greener.  I’ve had to become more disciplined. So far I’ve been sticking to my schedule of preparing an article each week and posting every Friday, (which hasn’t always been easy, especially when work and vacation and family stuff comes up.) But that means I can’t just talk about going green. I have to learn how to do it on schedule too, and then actually make changes. Even though I’m only taking on one corner of my life at a time, that steady pace has me feeling like a deer caught images-1in headlights some days. Last week, when my husband proofread How Not to Recycle Your Mail, he stopped at the point where I mentioned how overwhelmed I felt with all the different kinds of  paper that I have to figure out what to do with, and said, “I’m not sure what’s recyclable and what’s not either.”

It’s nice to know I’m not alone.

So, we’ve been bringing our office paper, mail, and cardboard to the Dump and asking the staff there about what to do with it. They’re usually very helpful. (Although there is one woman who always seems to be in a bad mood. We try not to ask her too many questions.) It’s important for us to know that we’re doing it right. Many of the articles I’ve read about the business of recycling  have suggested that recycling programs educate their communities about what can be recycled, because if the wrong items get thrown together it can contaminate everything else or gunk up the machinery. That can make recycling less profitable.

Since starting this blog, I’ve been trying to problem solve how to reduce, reuse, recycle in a way that wouldn’t hurt. I started with single-use plastic bags, which I reduced to nothing. YAY! I now only bring my reusable ones to stores. But through my research I learned that plastic shopping bags are part of a broader category called plastic film, in which a lot of the stuff we buy is packaged. My husband and I weren’t ready to IMG_0789give up paper towels and other staples because they come wrapped in plastic. So, I was relieved to learn that almost all plastic film and even the bags that our frozen berries come in can be recycled. These days, we accumulate all that plastic wrapping in our garage and include it in our weekly deposits at the dump.

But I have to admit, if I stop and think too long about what happens to the bags next my heart sinks a little.

My hope is that my efforts to become greener will inspire and encourage others, so this end of the story, where our County Dump has been bundling and storing plastic film since 2008, is not IMG_0785something I’d like to write about. But it’s important. Those plastic bags, which are a commodity that can be sold on the market and then used as raw material to make stuff like rugs, bags and decking, to me represent a failure of recycling programs. For some reason, these raw materials aren’t being sold to industries and made into new things. Instead, they’re just sitting.

Many people have told me that recycling doesn’t make good dollars and cents; that it winds up costing more for municipalities to pick up, sort, bundle and store the materials than it’s worth. For our County at least, it looks like plastic film recycling is more of a drain than a cash cow. But I have a hard time understanding why recycling should be a losing program. All that aluminum, paper, plastic, glass, and cardboard that we dutifully deliver can be sold to businesses as raw material. So why doesn’t recycling pay?

One reason is that the recycling industry is trying to sell a commodity that fluctuates in value more than any other.  In 2002, when oil prices went way up–––and I used to cry each time I filled up my gas tank––– recyclables were the raw-material rockstars. Industries bought them over the virgin stuff for production and municipalities expanded their recycling programs. Unfortunately, the high demand didn’t last. Now that oil prices are at a low, guess what: recyclables are once again at the bottom of heap. Director of policy/advocacy for the National Waste and Recycling Association, Chaz Miller, explained the problem as “…[recyclables are] a supply that never stops, regardless of demand.”  Karidis, Arlene: How the recycling industry is fighting the whims of commodities’ markets

But the green technology that could make recycling and other planet-saving practices make sense for businesses is either coming or available. The candy and beverage company Nestle’ has invested in a green infrastructure. Despite having to pay more, they use recycled plastics to make new soda bottles and such.  Westervelt, Amy: Is it time to rethink recycling. The tech-giant Apple has also made the commitment. It’s planning to use the methane gas released by garbage to power one of its new plants.  Rosengren, Cole: Apple makes surprise entry into the waste-to-energy industry  Trex, is another example. It recycles plastic shopping bags and uses them as raw material to make decking. They and the supermarket chain, Price Chopper, have partnered in their recycling efforts. Price Chopper makes it possible for customers to return their single-use shopping bags to stores and then in turn sells the plastic films directly to Trex.

It seems that when private companies join together to solve a problem they find a way to get it done and make money. But for recycling programs, staying in the black is a challenge, especially if the plastic bags keep coming in and they have no one to buy them. Another part of the challenge is that not all recyclables are equal and some can be a real pain in the neck.

Aluminum and paper are two of the top commodities, with paper being the easiest to make anew. Aluminum is a metal, which can be recycled endlessly. It doesn’t degrade each time it’s reprocessed the way paper or plastic does. That’s why over 70% of the aluminum used in construction comes from recycled.   Glass bottles and jars are perhaps the biggest headaches for waste management facilities, particularly in communities where single-stream recycling is used.

With single-stream recycling, no one has to worry about sorting their glass, plastics, and papers and then having to schlep separate bins to the curb. Single-stream, means one bin for all recyclables. Easy. People like it, too. The sorting comes later, when workers on assembly lines in recycling plants sort the different types of recyclables into multiple streams on a conveyer belt, so they can be bundled and sold. The problem with that is that there are plenty of opportunities  for bunches of recyclables to become contaminated. Once that happens none of the paper, plastic or cardboard in them can be used.

Glass, which easily shatters, is a big reason why only 25% of the recyclables collected in many single-stream recycling programs actually make it to market. What that means in terms of dollars yankee swapand cents is reduced sales. Plants still have to pay for labor and cover other expenses, they just lose 75% of their product.  I’m not an accountant, but it seems to me that a company with that kind of loss on the books  wouldn’t stay in business long.   Hickman, Matt: Are your glass bottles really getting recycled?

I don’t mind sorting my plastics film, glass, and paper into separate bins. (Disclaimer: When I say, ‘I don’t mind sorting…’ I actually mean: my husband doesn’t mind… He’s the one who deserves credit for all of that.)  I don’t have a problem with taking it all to the Waste Management Facility, either. (Um… that’s mostly him, too.) But recycling is one of those important three R’s (reduce, reuse recycle) that could help the planet.  I want it to work.

I’m guessing most people do.

Anyway, my next task is to figure out how to reduce the mail that comes into my house every day, so I’m off to find out about stop-junk-mail data bases. I’ll let you know how that goes next Friday. See you then!

How Not to Recycle Your Mail

I flipped up the lid on my kitchen trash can the other day and there, on top of our household garbage were three IMG_0761envelopes, a bank statement, and a catalog, all addressed to my husband. I peeled each and every one off the heap, proving my dedication to recycling, because we’d had salmon for dinner and the mail felt and smelled like fish. I marched down the hall, burst through the door to my husband’s office, and showed him the evidence. He forced his gaze up from his computer screen and looked at me through eyes bleary from hours of data entry.

“These are recyclable,” I said, because I could tell he didn’t get why I was standing there.

“Oh. Right.” He shrugged.

“Don’t shrug me off. This is about saving our planet.”

He sat back in his creaky chair, rubbing his forehead. “I’m on board. But what do I do with my––” He stopped, his blue eyes drifting down and left. Then he sat up straighter.  “Wait a minute. Just yesterday I saw YOUR mail in the trash can.”

I let the hand with the soggy letters sink.

“Haddassa magazine? Visa?” He lowered his voice and stood for this next one. “Woman’s Day?”

I backed towards the door.

He paced around his desk. “So what was that about saving the planet?”

imagesAdmittedly, changing how we dispose of our mail is going to take some getting used to. It may even be more difficult than when we switched from single-use shopping bags to reusable ones. The thing is, we’ve been opening our mail, giving it a quick read, taking two steps to the trash can, and dropping the mail in for most of our adult lives. By now, it’s an autopilot sequence. And so, those thin envelops and thick catalogues make up a high percentage of the stuff we haul to the dump each week. If the average family sends 41 pounds of mail to landfills per year, seems to me the two of us are above average.

The good news is that the paper industry has been recycling for a really long time. In fact, they’ve been recycling since way  before the word ‘recycling’ even appeared in dictionaries. (In case you’re wondering, that was in 1927 and the word pertained to recycling oil.) I mean, we’re talking Egyptian scribes erasing hieroglyphics from sheets of papyrus to reuse them, and Chinese wood-block printers repulping linen sheets to print new books on, and the first printing mill in the American colonies that sent some poor schlub around the cobblestone streets in Pennsylvania with a push cart  to collect old rags so it could make new paper. ( the-history-of-paper )

In other words, print mills have their system for recycling down, because they’ve been doing it longer than everyone else. But it’s not just mail that they recycle. They have a bunch of categories of reclaimed paper that have to be recycled separately. For me, that means that I have more to organize.  Instead of just figuring out how to green that corner of my life where my mail keeps piling upimages, I’m going to have to think about all the paper products I throw out in my mess of a home office, too. In fairness to my husband, he didn’t have any where else to put his mail besides the trash can, because I haven’t thought about how to sort and store those recyclables yet. There’s a reason for that, too. It’s that I’m feeling overwhelmed by the broad scope of paper recycling.

But according to the Institute of Scrap and Recycling Industries, most everyone else is not overwhelmed, and thanks to them more than 2 times the amount of paper gets recycled each year, compared to what gets brought to landfills. What helps, I’m sure, is that many Counties make it easy by providing curbside pick up that includes paper products. In some communities recyclables don’t even have to be presorted, because of a new method called ‘single-stream recycling.’ That’s when people put their plastics, paper, cans, bottles, and cardboard into a single receptacle. Then the contents of those bins are transported to a center where assembly-line workers sort them into the different categories. This makes recycling a lot easier and builds cooperation for it in communities. It also provides jobs. But it likely raises the cost of recycling, too. After the materials are sorted they’re sold and transported to various businesses that use them to make new stuff, so hopefully that money is made back and there’s a profit in there somewhere.  (I’ll blog more about that next week.)

Reclaimed paper that is purchased by paper mills accounts for 36% of the industries production needs. 76% of paper mills buy reclaimed paper and use some or all of it to make new products that are sold around the world. After the collected recyclables are transported from recycling centers to paper mills, they are sorted into categories, like: newspaper, cardboard, office paper, and mixed paper. Different paper products are made from each of them. Items that we use everyday,  like tissues, office paper magazines, and card board boxes are almost always made from reclaimed paper. Some virgin materials, like wood chips from pine and birch trees, have to be used, as well, because the fiber in the pulp degrades a little more each time paper is repulped. But still, reusing what has already been made reduces green house gasses, consumes less water, and saves forests.

Here’s a 4-minute video on recycling paper from Zoom TV (Thumbs up to the little kid doing the interview.):

Where we live we don’t have single stream recycling. We also don’t have garbage pick up. But we do have a County dump and we bring our recyclables there every week. Last week, I noticed that there are bins designated for the different categories of paper:

  • Card board
  • Newspapers
  • Mixed paper, which included catalogues, junk mail, books, telephone books, and most paper with print on it (the ink will have to be removed before recycling.)
  • Office paper

So, to start somewhere, my homework for this week is to set up a container for each of those categories and to put them in a place where my husband and I are reminded to use them.  Maybe then paper recycling will feel more manageable. Maybe some day soon, we won’t have to think about recycling our mail, it will just be automatic.

Until next week…

What’s So Bad About My Mail?

California is in trouble! I know this because my husband and I are on vacation in San Fransisco this week and there’s a poster in our bathroom telling us IMG_0955about the historic drought. Earlier, when we drove from San Louis Obispo to San Fran, I saw how dry everything was. At one point during the trip we watched a fire crew rush to put out a brush fire that had started along the roadside. It was one of the reasons we spent four hours in traffic. Maybe someone had flicked a lit cigarette out of a car window. That’s all it would have taken to ignite those dry shrubs. Then, I’d imagine, things would have heated up quickly, if not for the fire crew’s much quicker response, and all those contemporary-style houses in the background could have burnt, too.  If that smoker had thought about how even a little thing like her cigarette butt could have had such a terrible impact, I’m sure she would have used the car’s ashtray instead.

This has changed my perspective from just last week, when I was scratching my head while staring into my trash at the bills and IMG_0763junk mail there. “It’s just paper right?” my husband had pointed out.  “Isn’t paper bio-degradable?”  The thing is, in the back of my mind, I’d always felt the same way. To make this small corner of my life greener, would have even been less painful than the plastic shopping bag ban I just put myself on.  Plus, I could rid my mailbox of all that pesky junk mail that I never look at. But until recently, I hadn’t thought much about it. Because, really, how much space in landfill does an envelope take up?

But even something small can have a huge impact on the environment.

It’s not just about the landfill, where the 41 pounds of mail I throw away each year winds up; it’s also about the greenhouse gasses produced from manufacturing and transporting what gets delivered to my mailbox every day, as well as the resources used to make all those catalogs and such. The pulp and paper industry cuts down millions of trees each year. It’s also the largest consumer of water.

Here are the not-so fun facts I learned from the Internet about mail:



But there are also those rays of sunshine I always look for.  My cousin, who happened to be visiting SF at the same time we were, knows a lot more about recycling than I do, (which could be said of just about everyone, but he knows more than most of them, as well.) He told me that the pulp and paper recycling program is the oldest of all the recycling programs and that shredded paper in all forms is easily recycled and made into other paper products. (I wonder though, about the above tax dollar statistic, then. To my cousin’s point, paper recycling produces material that is of value. So, shouldn’t there be a return? Perhaps the people who’d added up that cost stat had forgotten to factor it in.)

My take-away here is that, even a little thing like mail can effect the planet in a bad way and I should be more careful about the amount I receive and the way I discard it. But because paper recycling is the oldest of all of the recycling programs, there are probably plenty of websites and agencies that can help make my life greener there. I just have to look for them.

My tasks moving forward:

  • I’m going to learn more about paper recycling in general, as well as about how to recycle mail in my area
  • I also plan to learn about how to reduce the mail delivered to my home each day,
  • And finally, I plan to take steps to shed those 41 pounds that I pack into my landfill every year.

Until next week…