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 Going Green: One family’s journey towards Harmonious Seasonality #15

EnvironmentVol. I, issue 15: The Paper Chase… Or is it simply a paper trail?

By Sherian Valenti

I love books. I always have. Books are beautiful and patient and eternal. Books are wonderful, and I value them above all other material things. I love them as much for the skill and artistry of the printer and bookbinder as I do for the wit and artistry of the writer. Books are an unfailing source of pleasure for me, and I take great pride in my personal library. Although I have never catalogued my books, I roughly estimate (by counting the number of books on two shelves of equal length, averaging the two, and multiplying that number by the total number of shelves of that length) that I have 800 books at the present time. There are books stacked on top of the tall shelves that nearly reach the eight-foot-high ceiling. There are stacks of books on top of the short shelves, and stacks of books on the floor in front of the shelves. There are piles of books on my desk and under my bed. I even have books in my bed. (How does that line go: the person who reads in bed never sleeps alone?) Books are irresistible.

And, like most other book lovers, I have an affinity for office supplies. The world of paper is large, and the assemblage of tools to manage all this paper is larger...

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Notebooks, pens, pencils, highlighters, sticky flags, sticky notes, binder clips, scissors… There are ever more interesting and creative ways to notate, arrange, organize, file, and otherwise retrieve any little bit of printed information. And although I was at the office-supply store last night buying school supplies for my children (and a fancy notebook for myself as well), just thinking about the wealth of paper accessories that I didn’t buy makes me want to run back to the store right now and buy more. Of course I don’t need any more. I haven’t needed more in many years. I still have 4/5ths of the first box of staples I bought for my new stapler seven years ago. I have had the same box of paperclips for nearly 12 years. I have an array of binder clips in various sizes, most of which, if they are ever used, are more likely to be found closing the rare bag of potato chips in the cupboard than holding any papers. I have a large box of file folders, but I have no filing cabinet, but none of this matters because my important papers are all over my desk. I have a drawer full of stationery and envelopes, but despite valuing the handwritten letter nearly as much as the book, I hardly ever take the time to write letters, preferring instead to send my love rather unromantically via email

Last week, after having arranged my children’s dance classes, music lessons, and sporting activities, and set a schedule for our Girl Scout meetings, I found that by adding these events to my own, personal, previous commitments, I was suddenly so over-committed that I raced out and bought two activity planners (one for my bag and one for my desk), and a planning calendar for my children to consult. (The planning calendar has a magnet on the back, and the natural place for it is, of course, on the refrigerator, but there is so much Magnetic Poetry on the refrigerator, there is no room for the calendar, so it isn’t up yet.) I was running late for an organizational meeting, so I didn’t have the time to examine all the other enticing paper items (I was shopping at a local paper purveyor, not at the large, paper-supply warehouse, so the selection was both smaller yet eclectically varied). To make up for my haste, I returned the following day to see what I had missed, and I ended up coming home with some elegantly printed file folders and matching notebook for a new project, some exquisite wrapping paper to use either as a book cover or to cover a mats for some photos I want to frame, and a few stickers and a matching lovely little accordion file.

And no, I am not what you would call a scrapbooker. I take extreme pleasure in my photo albums, and I do have some scrapbooking stencils and papers and a few stickers, and I have saved various ticket stubs and tourist maps and other paper paraphernalia from my travels, but I have never made them into real scrapbooks. I could, I suppose, and sometimes I think about it, but I haven’t followed through yet. I am thinking about framing many of the paper souvenirs and photographs from our last family trip, rather like a large, single-page scrapbook, but I haven’t done it yet.

Paper comes from trees. Trees are good for the environment. In principle, I am opposed to cutting down trees. I believe in saving the rainforests. But the amount of paper in my house that was once a standing forest is beyond my capacity to calculate.

I am a consumer. I am not particularly proud of this fact, but there it is. I tried to give up my subscriptions to the glossy cooking magazines, but I found I was buying them when I went to the grocery store, so I renewed my subscriptions. I have asked that my name be removed from countless catalog mailing lists, but there are some catalogs that I enjoy receiving, and my name remains in circulation on the “good customers” list. I recycle 99% of my unwanted paper, but my consumption of paper far exceeds any possible benefit from my recycling.

I can see from sales figures and the fact that paper retailers of all sorts continue to operate profitably and offer an ever-increasing selection of products that I am not alone. There are not only others like me, but many others like me. We are a paper force. So what should we do about it?

Clearly computers have not created a paperless revolution as some forecasters once envisioned. Paper consumption must be moderated, but like dieting, some paper is necessary to live. I cannot live without books. I cannot live without making lists and keeping a journal and writing in my notebooks. Wrapping paper is a small pleasure, and some art papers are too delightful to discourage. Like junk food, I need to eliminate all the paper that does not contribute to a healthy lifestyle.

I made a fair effort to reduce the amount of unsolicited mail coming to my house. Unlike my journals and notebooks and calendars, there is little, if any, benefit from the majority of mail I receive. If I want to see what clothes or shoes or cake pans any mail-order retailer has to offer, I know I can go online and see the full selection. And I don’t need to have the catalog in my hand to be reminded of any particular retailer—many of them send me nearly daily emails. I don’t mind these paperless ads, as there is nothing to recycle and virtual window shopping can be a nice, mindless break from whatever I have been working on. I can be more vigilant in having my name removed from the big mailing lists. That will eliminate 85% of the paper I recycle. (Most of the paper I buy I keep.)

If I can reduce the amount of junk mail I receive, the next biggest source of unwanted paper in my home is my children’s schools. Yes, I know children need to learn on paper, and yes, I need to have those written communications from the teachers and administrators. The traveling-paper-shows that are my children’s backpacks are to some degree necessary, rather like bread in the diet. Some bread is good and nutritious and made from whole grains, just as some school notices are important, but some of the papers they bring home are of the Wonder Bread variety. I don’t know how to address this issue. It would be easy to dismiss the whole thing as being beyond my control, and it very well might be, but I should make some effort, even if it is a futile one in the end. This will require additional thought.

Even still, reducing the amount of junk mail/food in my house/diet is not going to mitigate the amount of paper I am purchasing. Foregoing the pretty new printed file folders and using instead the plain old file folders is like having the coffee without the cake: it will get you through, but it won’t be as much fun. But books—they are what it all comes down to, the things that started it all. Giving up books would be like eliminating broccoli from the diet; books are just too nutritious to give up. I do, in my own defense, buy used books 70% of the time. This, I suppose, is as good as substituting oatmeal for croissants at breakfast, but I am able to buy more used books than new because they are cheaper, so like the fat-free snacks that I see people eat, the increased volume counteracts any intended benefits.

But books, like my abdominal fat, are forever. My books, whether new or used, are not going to wear out. They do not have expiration dates, but instead have very long shelf lives. My library will be passed on to my children, and hopefully to my grandchildren, and if I have my way, my library will remain a valued collection in perpetuity. Books are art and literature and science and culture. Books are good. Books are intellectual vegetable soup. Books are essential.

And that is where I must draw the figurative line: in order to moderate my paper consumption, I will concentrate on allowing into my house only printed materials that meet my minimum nutrition standards. Books, important school notices, cooking magazines (I cook, and I get tired, so I truly need the inspiration), and my notebooks are on the approved list. Junk mail and all other extravagant uses of papers are to be reduced and discouraged. Now and then art papers may be brought in as necessary, rather like having ice cream on a special occasion, because we are, after all, trying to balance our nutrition, not starve ourselves and deprive ourselves of our essential pleasures.

As for the condiments, the highlighters, sticky flags, paper clips, etc., I must use up what I have before I buy any more. And at the rate I am going, I will never use that whole bottle of Tabasco sauce in my refrigerator. But I will go play with my Magnetic Poetry though…




Copyright 2006, Sherian Valenti

Contact: [email protected]

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