Sunday, August 5, 2012

Reducue, Reuse, Recycle - Paper & Cardboard

This is my second post in the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle series. The previous post on recycling of plastics can be found here. While the recycling of paper and cardboard seems straightforward, there is actually an additional option to consider for these materials. Andrea and I have been recently discussing the pros and cons of recycling versus composting of paper and cardboard, but have yet to really reach a firm conclusion on the topic.

Printer/Copy/Multi-Purpose Paper

A portion of our paper waste consists of printer paper, either that we have printed on here, pieces I've brought home from the office, or letters received in the mail. This isn't a large volume of waste for us. I actually didn't have any paper on my last trip to the recycling center.

Reduce - While it does vary, depending on what we've been doing, we generally do not produce a great deal of paper waste ourselves. The bulk of this type of paper usually either comes to us through the mail or from the office. For this reason, there isn't a great deal of opportunity for reduction. There are, of course, a few occasions when we may print more often than is strictly necessary, and there is certainly some room for improvement there.

Reuse - Andrea does an excellent job of reusing paper that is printed on only one side. For anything that she is printing for our own use she prints on the back of previously printed on paper. This has significantly reduced the amount of new printer paper that we use. In fact, we recently gave my Mom several reams of paper, because we had bought a case several years ago and its become obvious that we aren't likely to ever use it. It is expected that when we get rabbits, we may use shredded paper as bedding for thm. This should give us a good method for reusing paper that has printed on both sides.

Compost - Composting could be considered a form or reusing, but I've opted to use a different category for it instead. There are two ways in which we sometimes compost paper. The first is to include it in the compost bin in lieu of other carbon sources. The second is to use paper as mulch instead of straw, wood chips, or other similar materials. Both methods of composting, however, work better when the paper has been shredded. Of course using a shredder requires electricity, so that must be considered when weighing the potential benefits of composting over recycling. We do, however, shred paper containing sensitive information, such as bank or healthcare statements, so for this paper no additional energy use is required.

Recycle - We do a good job of ensuring that all printer/copy/multi-purpose paper is recycled. I could do a better job of bringing home such paper from the office for recycling, but feel confident that nearly every piece paper we produce gets recycled, assuming we don't compost it instead.

Junk Mail, Newspapers and Product Inserts

The majority of our paper waste comes from junk mail, newspapers, product inserts (instruction booklets, etc) and similar sources. Andrea is constantly trying to reduce the amount of junk mail we receive by having us removed from mailings lists. Unfortunately we find that every charity we donate money to results in a significant amount of junk mail being sent to us, most of which is requesting additional donations. This is somewhat ironic, since many of these charities are environmental or conservation focused charities, which one would hope would want to reduce the amount of paper waste being generated. Since we do not currently receive a weekly newspaper, the amount of newspaper waste we have is minimal. Andrea will occasionally pick up a newspaper when she's in town, but that's not often. The quantity of product inserts that we receive is directly related to the amount of new items that we're purchasing. Many products ship with several pieces of documentation, most of which are trash. The instruction booklet is sometimes useful to have on hand, but a digital copy of that can often be downloaded instead.

Reduce - Our primary method of reduction of paper waste is through reducing the amount of junk mail we receive. As mentioned above, Andrea puts forth quite a bit of effort trying to get us removed from various mailing lists. Catalogs are the worst of the junk mail offenders, as they often contain many pages. We rarely make catalog purchases, so it is pointless for us to receive them. There is one exception to this, however, and that is seed catalogs. We do look through seed catalogs more often than most, and have actually made an order or two from them. Some of the junk mail from charities has been more difficult to deal with. At least one of these charities has responded that the only way to reduce future mailings is to sign up for their monthly payment plan, which is not something we are willing to do. We have discussed completely stopping support for these charities, but since we do support their causes, its not a simple decision.

Reuse - We haven't found as many ways of reusing this type of paper as we have for printer paper. What little newspaper we have gets used for cleaning surfaces such as glass. Junk mail is occasionally used for filling dead space in boxes or wrapping fragile items when storing long term, but that isn't something we do very often. Because it is often printed in color and on glossy paper, we do not try to compost junk mail. The product inserts can usually be composted if shredded.

Recycle - The most difficult part of recycling paper is sometimes in deciding if certain items should be recycled as paper or cardboard. The guidelines posted at the recycling center indicate that the method for making this determination is to rip the item, and if its white inside should be treated as paper, if brown should be treated as cardboard. I'm not entirely confident in this approach, however, and worry that at times we may put certain items into the wrong bin.


The cardboard that we have can be divided into two groups: carton board and corrugated cardboard. Carton board comes primarily from packaged products, such as granola bars, crackers, etc. The corrugated cardboard mostly comes from the shipping boxes that we receive items in that we've purchased online.

Reduce - Probably the best way to reduce the amount of carton board waste we produce is to cut back on the amount of pre-packaged foods we purchase. We have much less of this material now than in the past, but there is still a lot of room for improvement. I would guess that at least half of our carton board waste is from sweets, such as granola bars and toaster pastries. If we can transition to a homemade alternative, we can reduce the amount of carton board we have to deal with. Corrugated cardboard, on the other hand, isn't quite as simple to reduce. The obvious solution is to reduce the number of online orders that we make, and/or reduce the amount of new items we purchase in general. We have found, though, that, due to our location, online ordering often makes more sense than buying the same items in the store. The selection of many products is limited by our location, and its not always practical to drive tens or hundreds of miles just to purchase a few items. Also, based on some of the research I've done, there is evidence to support that buying items online rather than from a brick and mortar store is more environmentally friendly.

Reuse - There are a few different ways in which we reuse cardboard. Large pieces of corrugated cardboard are used as the base layer for sheet composting. This is actually one type of cardboard that we have a shortage of, and we may have to search for additional pieces if we want to do sheet composting of a large area. We sometimes use smaller pieces of corrugated cardboard as weed barriers when mulching around plants. We've done this in the strawberry bed and may do it in the herb bed soon as well. We've talked about shredding some of the carton board to compost, either in the compost bin or as mulch.

Recycle - I must admit that there are occasional items that I end up not recycling simply because I can't figure out where they should go. These are usually pieces that seem to me to be cardboard, but are white in the middle, which the recycling center guidelines categorize as paper. Clothing tags are a good example of this type of item. I find myself paranoid of putting such items into the wrong bin, even though the guidelines seem to make it clear where they belong. I believe that the best solution to this dilemma may be to compost, instead of recycling, such material, so I don't have to worry about deciding if its paper or cardboard.

When dealing with paper and cardboard, one of the big questions is whether its better to recycle or compost. Andrea and I were just talking about this topic a couple of days ago. After our conversation I did some research, which uncovered more questions than answers.

On the one hand, it can be argued that composting paper and cardboard is preferable to recycling simply because it is a form of reusing. By composting these items, they can then be used to improve the soil. If a carbon source, such as straw, is going to be purchased for use as mulch or to be added to the compost bin, it make sense to use paper and cardboard instead. This not only provides materials that are already on hand, rather than requiring the input of external materials, but allows the waste material to be disposed of without transporting it offsite and using energy and resources for processing.

On the other hand, it can be argued that increasing the demand for new paper production, by not recycling, has more of an impact than increasing the demand for straw or other materials for composting or mulching. While composting these materials can be considered reusing, it is not the same as reusing some of the other recyclables, as composting these items is not decreasing the demand for additional paper and cardboard to be produced, it is decreasing the demand of an entirely different product. Another consideration is the energy use required to shred the paper and cardboard so they can be used as compost or mulch, although the recycling process requires much more energy than what one would use in a home shredder. One last issue to be mindful of is that paper can only be recycled a limited number of times. Repeated recycling results in fibers that are unsuitable for making of paper and cardboard, although may be used in products such as toilet paper and tissue.

At this point, we really haven't come to a conclusion regarding the issue of composting vs recycling of paper and cardboard. My guess is that we're likely to use a combination of the two disposal methods, at least until we come across more definitive reasons for choosing one over the other. Of course, for households that do not garden, there may be no need for compost, in which case recycling is likely the better option.


  1. This blog is nice.Natraj Industries is a popular manufacturer in the corrugated packaging industry, not only in India, but also in many other countries. Natraj Industries is dealing in packaging machinery manufacturing since 1978.3 Layer / 5 Layer Corrugated Board Plant.

  2. Looks like you've got your first spammer. Congratulations! :P

    I envy your recycling options, as mentioned in a previous entry. We have a standard recycling "station" trailer -- one of those things that can be towed along by a truck, and is removed for emptying as needed -- right at the end of our street. It accepts the usual materials, except glass. This bothers me, because I usually prefer to buy "wet stuff," like beverages and sauces, in glass bottles. I reuse a lot of glass containers, and offer the rest on Freecycle, but they are rarely accepted. I end up throwing a lot of them away just to avoid a potentially dangerous clutter. :(

    Tony and I don't recycle as much as we'd like to. We haven't gotten properly organized for it yet. This will require some work in our kitchen, to make room for sorting bins. We intend to replace our old microwave cart with a larger utility shelf, and we hope to place the (small) recycling bins on it. Then we'll need something to help us efficiently and safely convey them outside to our vehicles. I'm thinking we'll use stackable bins, and a dolly to wheel them outside.

    I'm eager to find out how much we'll be able to reduce our household waste by recycling. I strongly suspect that we could take our waste down to zero, or close enough to it that we'll be able to cancel our trash collection service.

    1. You should save your glass, assuming you have the space, and take it to the London recycling center when you travel there. That is where we do all of our recycling. Its in a fairly convenient location, and I can give you directions if you're interested.

      Eventually I want to experiment with doing away with our trash pickup service as well. I believe that, if we put in the effort, we could reduce our waste down to an amount that could be saved and taken to the dump only very occasionally. The biggest challenge there would be in ensuring that the waste wasn't something that would attract pests or have a strong odor. Right now we average taking out 2 kitchen trash bags per week, and they are not usually full.