THE BLOG

Paper Trail: A Day of Waste? (VIDEO)

05/13/2010 05:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last week my wife and I started off on a short vacation and as the day went on I noticed my pockets filling up with more and more paper. I decided to take an accounting of all the slips of paper, cups and bags that I went through in this single day and share that here. I thought for sure I'd have a clear cut campaign of waste and eco-righteous rage.

However, on the plane I also watched a TED talk by a woman named Catherine Mohr on building green, where I learned about 'embodied energy': the amount of energy and water consumed while using a paper towel or a cloth towel or even a sponge. A paper towel seems wasteful at first, but when you consider that you'll have to wash a cloth towel, it could actually be 'greener' to use paper at times. In other words, if you look at the big picture, the most ecologically prudent solution is not always obvious.

Here's the list:

  • Paper Napkin to hold a to go muffin as we ran off to an early morning plane
  • Facial tissue
  • Printed itinerary - 2 letter-sized sheets
  • Paper drawing from my 7 year old to wish us a good trip - 2 letter-sized sheets
  • 2 luggage receipts with attached stickers for baggage claim (no one EVER checks bags at other end)
  • Cardboard luggage tags - 2 total
  • Charge receipt for checked luggage (used to be part of plane fare)
  • 2 boarding passes each (connecting flights) - 4 total
  • 2 separate bags, each with one paper tissue, for our pastries at airport - 4 pieces paper
  • Coffee and Tea in double cups with hot beverage sleeves - 6 pieces paper and cardboard (all used for maybe 15 minutes before discarding)
  • Cash receipt
  • Napkins - 2
  • Toilet paper - hard to judge an amount here but let's call it equivalent to 1 paper hand towel
  • Paper hand towel - 2
  • Newspaper - 6 sections, of which I only use 3 and only use for one hour (maybe 50 large pages total)
  • Magazine - 2 with about 90 pages each (I stretch out use for a week or so)
  • Cash receipt for Newspaper and Magazine
  • 2 bag pretzels on plane (foil coated paper) holding 12 g or about 10 pretzels
  • 2 napkins
  • Paper hand towel in lavatory
  • Bag for lunch at fast food during stop over - 1 for two sandwiches (used to carry sandwiches about 10 feet and then discarded)
  • 2 napkins used for 15 minutes
  • 2 cups used for 15 minutes
  • Tissue wrap around sandwiches - 2 pieces used for 15 minutes
  • Cash receipt - 1 small piece
  • Taxi cash receipt
  • Note pad paper to write down hotel Wi-Fi code
  • Paper tissue
  • Paper cups - 2 for afternoon tea
  • 2 napkins
  • Charge receipts at dinner - 3 (merchant copy plus two for me)
  • Napkins, paper cup for gelato at dessert place later: 4
  • Charge receipt
  • Marketing flyer from street vendor

As far as I can remember that was all of the paper used that day and I did include both my wife and myself in most all items. My loose accounting and all of this considering that some pieces of paper were small, some big, some thick or tissue thin, comes out to about 70 pieces of paper (not including pages of paper or magazine) all to get through one single day. True, I don't travel every day, but I don't sit at home either.

At this point I have to apologize for offering all problem with no solution; I really don't have one. I don't have a formula for embodied energy or some other control measure that would consider whether it would be less wasteful to invent and produce an electronic device that tallies receipts all day. I'm not sure if a Kindle or an iPad would save on the sections of the NY Times that I don't read and windup discarding untouched. I do know that I enjoy the paper and pen experience of doing the crossword puzzle and wouldn't trade that for an e-version where I had to type in the solution to 25 down (Nice hat = chapeau).

I don't want to carry around a cloth napkin to use throughout the day but I would prefer to eat off of a washable plate than to use a paper bag for all of 30 seconds as I carry my sandwich from the cashier to the table 10 feet behind me. I did notice that a couple in the restaurant asked for water in a reusable canister they were carrying with them for that purpose and that seems a good idea.

I feel, like many of my generation, a fondness for the smell and feel of a new book, the rustle of my morning paper and love the freedom of disposing things as I use them and not having to carry a picnic pack everywhere I go but I do think that we could be a bit more mindful as a nation and reduce, even if it was just a little, the paper trail we leave each day.

Of course I want to know what you think an maybe we can come up with a good idea between us.