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How to Practically Cut Paper Use in Everyday Life
by Sam Butterworth
The Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) is a global non-profit organization dedicated to monitoring and promoting sustainable forest management. Its instantly recognizable stamp of approval can be found on a huge variety of forestry-derived products, representing the international gold standard in promoting responsible paper and wood use in consumer industries.
However, despite the FSC’s best efforts, its research estimates that the average American still uses nearly six entire trees worth of paper every year. Worse yet, almost all of this paper very quickly finds its way into the trash or recycling. Unsurprisingly, the environmental impact of such voracious and wasteful consumption is hugely damaging – and these days, the vast majority of it is totally unnecessary.
With just a few simple changes to one or two outdated habits we’re all guilty of, most modern households could easily switch to an almost entirely paperless lifestyle overnight. Wanna know how to get there, clear some space and feel good about yourself into the bargain? Here are our six top tips for a painless switch to paperless living:
1. Don’t print
Perhaps the most immediate way to make a significant cutback on your paper waste is to avoid duplicating documents that already exist. If they’re already out there in online form, why then also offer up a chunk of wholly unnecessary real estate in your home or workplace? External hard drives, portable flash storage and cloud computing now give us the ability to safely archive digital documents across a multitude of locations in perpetuity, occupying none of your valuable physical space and being available for instant review at the click of a button. Given that such an overwhelming proportion of all financial, personal, business and legal transactions are now managed and handled entirely digitally (including the vast majority of court proceedings, if you want a solid precedent!), insisting on squirreling away dozens of old hard copies in some musty file cabinet seems positively anachronistic.
2. Create and use a digital signature
So you’re looking to cut back on printouts, but keep being sent documents that need to be signed, co-signed, faxed and returned? No problem – there are any number of apps, programs and services available that will allow you to receive, sign and return legally watertight and binding documentation using a digitized or PDF version of the ol’ John Hancock. Plans start from entirely free for basic services, while others offer more advanced options for a modest one-time or annual fee. Check out this handy guide from the Google-backed DocuSign service for more information.
3. Opt in to digital-only billing and statements
Almost all reputable banking and billing companies now offer customers the option to handle 100% of your invoicing, account-checking and updating entirely online – in fact, there’s often a small financial benefit to doing so, with the additional costs of outmoded and inefficient paper billing frequently appearing as an irritating add-on to a monthly plan. If your service provider offers account handling by email, app or online log-in, go for it: not only will you potentially save a bit of money, but those bundles of statements you won’t ever look at again can finally be abandoned, shredded and recycled. Win-win!
4. Switch to digital books, magazines and cards
Most of us have now embraced the idea that breaking news doesn’t wait for printing presses to fire up: if you’re still waiting on tomorrow’s edition of your favorite periodical to hit the doorstep, it may well be time to tweak your subscriptions. The affordability of the many competing e-book platforms on the market now means that most of us can carry around dozens of full-length novels in our back pockets, rather than having to find room in a crowded bag for that 400-page epic we can’t put down. And today’s e-cards serve the exact same functions as postal greetings, letting someone know we’re thinking of them and even including a wide range of gifts and vouchers if we choose. (Better yet, we often get to design and tailor them ourselves, rather than resorting to a generic store-bought effort.) Oh, and hey – they can be sent instantly, so no more snail mail embarrassments when that big day sneaks up on us! Whew.
5. Block direct mail
We’re all depressingly familiar with the daily invasion of junk mail – but how many of us actually stop to think about the equally horrifying statistics behind it all? The Michigan-founded organization 41 Pounds certainly is: it’s named after the literal weight of credit card applications, catalogs, flyers and coupon books received by the average American every year. You can subscribe to this and other services to block much of it from your doormat, with competitors like DMA Choice and Catalog Choice also providing similar functions, with options to block specific items like phone books while retaining access to your preferred brochures and promotions.
6. Avoid disposable products
Single-use plates, cups, napkins and towels all seem like handy options at times, but the amount of waste they’re collectively responsible for is staggering. With a tiny bit more effort, everyone is far better catered for using regular tableware – so next time you find yourself struggling to balance a slab of lasagne on a flimsy cardboard sheet that’s rapidly turning transparent on you, feel free to politely request a plate that isn’t helping trash the environment quite so quickly! As for things that really ought to stay disposable (you won’t hear us arguing against single-use toilet paper any time soon), switching to recycled makes a huge difference: as noted by the National Resources Defense Council, if every American household switched out one roll of their regular brand virgin fiber toilet paper for a 100% recycled version, it could save nearly half a million tress.
Doing all of the above takes a little adjustment, sure…particularly if you want to go a step further by digitizing and disposing of old paper documents, which will likely involve buying an affordable scanner and some digital storage, then learning (and remembering!) to make secure backups of your valuable files. But once you’ve done it, you’ll be amazed how easy it is to maintain, and how much more space you’ll have around the home or office.
Of course, the environmental benefits are what we’re really interested in here – but multiple home studies have also shown that going paperless can significantly boost productivity, profitability and morale too. So if you’re still on the fence, give some of these steps a go over the coming months, and follow up with the others if it seems to be helping. We’d love to hear how it works out for you!