Eco Challenge: Going Paperless

Walk into my home and it's easy to see I work with words (and thus, paper) for a living. My bookshelves have volumes jammed willy-nilly into every crevice, and magazines threaten to slide off their stacks atop my end tables. Slim reporter's notebooks and piles of story drafts litter the kitchen table and my desk. Add a few weeks' worth of bills, catalogs, and junk mail, and I've got one fine mess.

I had always seen these stacks as part of a writer's world, but after learning about the toll this paper takes on the planet, I reconsidered. After all, in one day, upward of 50,000 acres of trees get slashed worldwide, for both paper and other uses. The average American consumes 741 pounds of paper per year, which adds up to a whopping seven tons apiece after 20 years.

Unfortunately, the harm doesn't even stop there. The paper industry is the third greatest industrial emitter of global warming pollution. Through its bleaching processes, it releases dioxins and other chemicals linked to several types of cancer into our environment.

On the flip side, we're recycling more every year -- about 56 percent of what we use. We're also buying more recycled paper products these days, which amounts to real savings: It takes 40 to 64 percent less energy to make paper from recycled materials than to make it from virgin wood.

But what about that first "R" in the green mantra: Reduce? I've been recycling for years, but I needed better control of what entered my home in the first place. I knew I had to rewrite my paper paradigm. What I didn't realize was just how easy it would be.

Before I started my challenge, my paper recycling bin often overflowed by the time collection day rolled around. Once I took my initial steps, however, I saw a dramatic reduction. The first hurdle? Stemming the flow of catalogs. At catalogchoice.org, I canceled 65 catalogs at once, for no cost. This took about an hour (the site lists companies alphabetically), and six companies opted not to heed my request. For those, I had to call their customer-service departments.

Next up, the rest of my junk mail. One group, 41pounds.org, estimates that we receive about 41 pounds of it per year, the production of which uses about 28 billion gallons of water annually. Through that organization's website, I canceled all my national and regional junk mail in just minutes (for a $41 fee) -- credit-card, coupon, and insurance offers among it.

I also canceled all but my Sunday newspaper, opting to read the daily news online instead. Because magazines fuel my livelihood (not to mention my curiosity and downtime), I didn't want cut them out, so I vowed to put them to reuse many times over before actually recycling them. Now I circulate any magazines that I receive to friends and colleagues (and welcome theirs), and even donate some of them to a women's shelter.

Paper Chase
Before starting this challenge, my laser printer at home consumed about a ream of paper a month. Now, I use the blank side of old printouts. I looked around for other small ways to reduce my paper use, too. In the kitchen, I opted for some flat, reusable sponges to replace paper towels. I'd already stopped putting paper napkins and plates on the table, enjoying the pleasure of using cloth napkins and Italian pottery instead. I canceled the delivery of my phone book by going to yellowpagesgoesgreen.org. If even half of us do that, we could save nearly 10 million trees a year from the mill saw.

Bills remained the final frontier. While they aren't as wasteful as catalogs or computer printouts, the paper versions are avoidable. Before I could electronically receive and pay them, however, I had to set up an online banking account, which my bank didn't offer. So I switched to a new bank, and I'll never go back to paper bills and checks again.

Bill-paying night is now a snap. I feel even more in control of my money. My online banking program links to my computer financial software, so I can more closely track my expenses, and I no longer need to print ATM receipts; I can see deposits and withdrawals in my account within hours. The happy result: In my efforts to help save the planet, I've improved my relationship with money and cleared my home of some clutter.

I can't eliminate paper entirely. Some items are harder to give up than others, so I continue to use tissues and toilet paper, but I buy recycled versions of each. Still, I love the fact that I no longer have to pry my mail out of its brass box or muscle my overstuffed recycling bin to the curb each week. Best of all, it feels good to be treading that much lighter on the earth.

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