Non-toxic living, Why zero-waste

Why its time for zero-paper

mail order by Chris Jordan
Artwork by Chris Jordan depicting nearly 10,000 mail order catalogues–representing the number of pieces of junk mail used in the USA every 3 seconds. Photo credit:

We started our zero-waste lifestyle by trying to avoid all disposable plastic. And pretty much plastic in general. At first we were wrapping things in paper instead of plastic, thinking that was best. But as we have grown and learned more, we now also try to avoid disposing and recycling paper as well. Here’s why:

About 1 billion trees’ worth of paper is thrown away in the USA every year. 1 billion! That is a lot of trees–and a lot of space in our landfills! About 1/4 of all mass in our landfills in America is from paper. And due to the anaerobic environment in landfills, they will never decompose.

Think about every daily printing of the Chattanooga Times Free Press…is it a good use of resources to keep all that paper locked in a landfill to be kept forever by our children’s children’s children? Even when it finally comes to people “mining” our landfills for usable material, paper gets mixed in with everything else, like poopy diapers and toxic chemicals, which will render it much more difficult to use.

So, its obviously unwise to throw paper away, but what about recycling? Paper fibers can be recycled 5-7 times, but each time the quality of the paper diminishes. It is extremely difficult for recycling plants to separate out the different quality levels of paper to recycle.  It is expensive and time consuming to separate everything at the recycling plant.

Trees aren’t the only ingredient in paper, it also takes water. Lots of it. Did you know it can take 3 gallons of water to make a single piece of paper?!? And then there is all of the energy used in making paper. Recycled paper uses fewer resources, but it still has a cost.

Another problem with paper is the toxic chemicals used to make it. This is particularly true for white and dyed paper. For more details, read The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard. But basically, most paper is made white using chorine, which produces dioxin–one of the most potent carcinogenic pollutants we know. According to the WHO, it also damages the reproductive and immune systems. One report from the EPA found that dioxin is released from items made with chlorine bleached paper fibers. Some of the items they examined were diapers, tampons, coffee filters, napkins, tissues and copy paper. If you avoid meat and dairy in your diet, you have already significantly reduced your exposure to dioxin, but why not reduce all risk? Also, the petroleum-based dyes frequently used in paper making are fairly toxic. Receipt paper is another problem as it is coated in BPA, which is an estrogen linked with breast cancer, reproductive problems, obesity, cardiovascular disease, reproductive problems, and autism. It is easily absorbed through the skin when touching receipt paper.

Paper use has social justice impacts as well. Deforestation is happening in developing countries where people do not have as many resources. Re-planting forests cannot re-create the biodiversity and complex root systems of natural forests. Haiti is an example of a place where so many trees have been chopped down that soil erosion has reduced their ability to grow food and protect against landslides. It is a serious injustice to have developing countries pay the long-term price for our consumption.

What are we to do?!?! Start by following the 5 R’s of living zero waste. I’ve outlined how each “R” applies to paper below.

As a side note, thinking about the effect your paper use has on the planet, health, and developing nations is probably overwhelming. I found it was just too much to think about until I put my papers in order in my house with the KonMari method. So, before you tackle this, I highly recommend you “KonMari” your papers. I wrote a post about Konmaring our papers Here.


Refuse to use paper whenever possible. Definitely refuse to use the plastic-coated shiny paper and any paper that is processed with chlorine (which includes most white paper). Tackle your junk mail! Here is a post about how to stop junk mail. Yes, refusing disposable paper means pretty much refusing all fast food, which will have the side benefit of reducing your heart disease 🙂 Use real plates instead of paper ones. Mop up spills with a kitchen towel instead of paper towels. I usually have one “floor towel” that sits in a corner of the kitchen to mop up all spills for the day. If its a big spill, I pull out a bath towel from the laundry basket. Buy used items at thrift stores instead of new items that would be packaged. Ask for an emailed receipt when possible. Use an electronic boarding pass (boarding passes are also printed on BPA-coated paper). Don’t choose between paper or plastic bags–bring your own (or go without if you forget your bags, you won’t forget again!).


Reduce the paper you absolutely need. If you really enjoy a physical newspaper, consider getting only the Sunday edition. Think twice before you print something, especially in our age of digital access. Does everyone really need a printed copy of an agenda? Do you really need the a printed copy of all the slides at a presentation? If you absolutely have to print something, use single spacing and print on the front and back. If you have to buy something new, consider buying from a store instead of ordering online and creating the need for an individual shipping box.


There will be times when you need paper, in these cases, use only recycled paper. This helps close the loop on recycling by providing a market for the recycled fibers. The words you want to look for on the label is “100% post-consumer recycled content.” Ask your office if it would consider buying recycled copy paper. We buy toilet paper made of recycled paper. You can also re-use papers for a different purpose. I write grocery lists on the back of papers sent home from school. The kid’s art projects are always 2-sided. We avoid using wrapping paper, but if a Christmas gift comes wrapped, we save it to make our own paper Valentines. We reuse my grandma’s newspaper as mulch in the flower beds. I still like writing in a physical journal, which is not hard to find at a thrift store. Thank-you cards are easy to make out of scrap paper. Borrow a book from the library instead of buying a copy.. If the Chattanooga library doesn’t have a book you want, request it and they will usually order it.


Compost paper that is too low-quality for recycling. This would include paper towels, egg cartons, paper contaminated with food, and the inner tubes of toilet paper. If you don’t have a compost pile, start one :). If that isn’t possible, use a service like Compost House.


Bring paper that you have despite all the above efforts to a recycling center where you can separate out the paper. Never recycle receipt paper as this contaminates the other paper with BPA. Chattanooga uses single-stream recycling, meaning everything gets thrown into one big blue bin to be separated out later. Avoid using this collection service since it is so difficult to separate out paper from other stuff. If that is way too overwhelming, focus on the previous 4 R’s first before you get crazy and stop using curbside pick up. When you are ready, start separating out newspaper and mixed paper to bring to a recycling drop-off spot where you can place your paper in a separate bin. There are about 5 places in Chattanooga where you can bring it, here is the city’s page with directions and hours. If you have followed the previous 4 R’s, you won’t have much left to recycle anyway.

As a final note, do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good! We still have unwanted paper come into our home. Take each piece as an opportunity to learn and be creative in finding a solution. Celebrate your successes instead of focusing on your failures, always moving in a better direction.

toothpicks by Chris Jordan
Another piece by Chris Jordan, showing 100 million toothpicks–the number of trees cut down to make paper for junk mail in the USA every year. Photo credit:

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