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Whilst I’m doing well at minimising our ‘black bag’ waste, I have to be constantly vigilant about paper and cardboard waste. These may be recyclable but that really is only part of the solution as recycling paper is an incredibly energy, water and chemical intensive process. Much better surely to avoid unnecessary paper usage and waste in the first place. I therefore decided to increase my efforts to tackle paper waste as part of Zero Waste Week.

Tackling paper creep

Paper waste is a dual-headed beast. First there is all the paper we actually bring into our home and then there is the drip feed of unwanted paper that seeps into the house.

There are various ways to tackle the first. Reading on screen is one way to reduce paper consumption but my ophthalmologist has advised against it due to my poor eyesight. The compromise is: I read news, blogs and emails on the computer but print any academic articles or work I’m submitting to a third party on paper, double-sided of course.

Magazines are a bit of an indulgence but I keep it in check by limiting myself to a few independent magazines only and by setting a strict maximum annual magazine budget. When I’ve read and digested them, I keep a select few issues but pass most on to the local doctor’s surgery so others get the benefit of them before they are recycled (and so I get to rediscover them during my occasional appointments).

Independent magazines

Indie magazines: a hard paper indulgence to keep in check

Paper packaging may feel more virtuous than plastic wrappers but it’s still waste and will proliferate if not kept under control. Replacing cereals with home-made breakfasts and drastically cutting my tea intake has tackled the most stubborn areas of household paper waste: the coated card that biodegrades slowly. Any unavoidable card I use as list paper before popping it in the recycling bin.

And then there is the stream of junk mail… I’m taking an increasingly tough stance with this paper. I am forever unsubscribing to mailing lists and re-registering with Mailing Preference Service to curb the flow of unsolicited post. I’ve also taken to returning unrequested mail to sender on the basis that companies will not stop bombarding us with unnecessary waste until we make them bear the cost and hassle of disposing of such waste.

On-site reuse and recycling

Of the paper waste that remains or is unavoidable, I try to find as many ways as possible to reuse it on-site before I recycle it.

Toilet roll holders and egg cartons end up in the compost bin, directly or indirectly, providing it with extra ‘brown’ material. In the winter and spring I use the former as pots for seed sowing and the latter for chitting potatoes before adding them to the compost heap. At other times of the year, I rip them up and pop them straight in the bokashi or compost bin.

Flour and sugar bags also feed the compost but not before I have used them as tin liners for cakes or biscuits. Lining the base of a storage tin means less greasy or crumbly residue, which saves me time and soap when washing up.

If I receive anything in wrapping paper, tissue paper or a brown paper bag, I unwrap it very carefully, straighten out the paper and store it for further use. This may sound dreadfully thrifty but the paper comes in handy when wrapping flowers, herbs or food that I take along to dinner parties and brown bags make good parcel paper. Also, as most (young) children just rip the paper off presents, it seems ridiculous not to use recycled wrapping paper for their gifts.

As a teenager I was a prolific letter writer and to save pennies, I made envelopes out of attractive pages I ripped out of magazines. I have resuscitated this practice, using the quality paper used by indie magazines or certain catalogues.

Finally, I occasionally recycle paper by using it to make my own. I have no plans to produce industrial quantities of vellum but I do like to make heavy old-school sheets for creative projects or little gifts. If you like to try your hand at making your own paper, this webpage provides detailed instructions. Apart from being fun, I experienced first-hand just how water intense paper-making is (whether on a small or industrial scale), which has made me even more mindful of not wasting paper.

An improvised deckle

An improvised deckle

I suspect my net paper waste will always exceed zero but with a bit of discipline and a smattering of creativity I’m finding ways to reduce the amount of paper that goes to off-site recycling.

Please do share your suggestions on how to keep paper waste at bay or reuse waste paper in the comments box below.


Additional paper making tips and suggestions 

  • In the “everything is a resource” spirit I made a deckle by popping a picture frame on a sheet of sinamay straw and a wire cooling rack and using heavy-duty elastic bands to keep them together.
  • I add a few drops of tea tree oil to the soaking water as it is mildly antiseptic and prevents smells if you leave the paper to soak overnight.
  • If you use a blender to pulp the paper, remember to sharpen the blades regularly with a steel.
  • If you plan to use fountain pens, felts or water-based paints, you’ll need to add liquid starch. You can buy this in the cleaning supplies aisle or better still mix up your own using water and cornflour!
  • To save energy, leave paper to dry in the sun if possible.
  • Don’t poor any remaining pulp down the sink. Use a sieve to drain it off. Leave it to dry thoroughly and then add it to the compost or your paper recycling bin.
  • To avoid frustration start by making small sheets until you get the hang of it.
  • Rachelle Strauss September 7, 2014, 3:54 pm

    It’s amazing how much we ‘waste’ simply by not being aware isn’t it? Like you, I seem to battle consistently with junk mail and there are a few companies who really should be named and shamed – but I won’t do that here! I’ve never made paper, but I have made envelopes and I store wrapping paper away for reuse. Have you ever done furoshiki instead of wrapping paper? We have the same cloths that get sent back and forth among the family 🙂

  • growing snowballs | Glenda Smith September 8, 2014, 8:06 am

    I sort of look forward to receiving junk mail now so that I can repurpose it into something useful. Check out my blog if you would like for some ideas.
    I really like the idea of making my own paper though. Thank you for planting that seed in my mind for the future.

  • Sarrah J. Woods September 8, 2014, 6:45 pm

    I love the idea of using magazine pages for envelopes. I’m definitely going to start doing that…not just to save paper, but also for fun! I’ve revived the practice of letter writing in my life, but I haven’t wanted to buy a bunch of stationery like I did when I was little. So this is a perfect idea for me. Thanks!

    • Meg and Gosia September 8, 2014, 7:06 pm

      Yes, I love good old-fashioned letter writing too. It really cheers me to receive a hand-written missive so I make a point of sending letters to friends for no particular reason so they experience that feeling too.

  • The Zero-Waste Chef September 9, 2014, 12:05 am

    I have been thinking about building my own compost bin in my yard, even though we have one on the premises where I live. The person in charge frowns upon many (oh so many) things in the bin, including cardboard. You’ve given me one more reason to make my own. Thank you for all the great ideas.


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