Sustainability Considerations in Choosing the Notebooks I Write In

Made from renewable paper and conducive to creative thinking

Photo by pine watt on Unsplash

I am occasionally given notebooks and journals as gifts or ‘swag’ from events. I also accumulated a modest collection of aspirational notebooks in my late childhood, since I loved going to the stationery store and daydreaming of all the writing I’d do.

In 2015, I started writing seriously. It started with free-writing in a five-subject college-ruled notebook and bullet journaling in a notebook I ‘won’ for participating in a contest at work.

Since then, I’ve depleted my gift stash of notebooks and had to buy my own. Around the same time period, I remembered and renewed my lifelong interest in sustainability, no doubt because of all the mental clarity I achieved through journaling. I made research into sustainable processes one of my highest priorities.

I turned a critical eye to the products I used every day. I’ve been trying out notebooks from alternative papers and sources, in the hopes of identifying the general principles of creating and using sustainable notebooks.

My taste in notebooks

A notebook that’s inviting and satisfying for me to use needs to have thick covers and substantial weight and heft.

I like pages that are rough and off-white or earthy in tone.

One of my main motivators, when I write, is looking back on the pages I’ve filled and admiring their color and the contrast of the ink.

Paper types

My internet research led me to an interesting argument about the merits of tree-free paper. Tree-free paper is made from alternatives to the traditional wood pulp, such as agricultural waste, bamboo, lokta plants, powdered stone, etc., and is often marketed with ‘save a tree!’ advertising.

Not all paper comes from trees.

The advantages of cutting down fewer trees may appear self-evident. A counter-argument (by an organization, it’s worth noting, with ties to the traditional paper industry) is that the US forestry industry has adopted sustainable best practices in the past decades, and the revenue from the paper market provides the incentive for them to continue to do so.

I find this claim reasonable, though I disagree with some of the other claims on their site (like this one). However, there is no danger currently of the market for paper being wiped out to the extent that foresters have no incentive to continue.

I favor a diversity of paper source options, which can be encouraged by buying paper from tree-free sources.

For now, my working definition of sustainable paper includes some of the tree-free options, Forest Stewardship Council certified paper and recycled paper.

Binding materials

My concern with the notebook spans the entire life-cycle, starting from its production and ending with its eventual disposal. Ideally, I want the entire notebook to be compostable.

The binding materials of notebooks often include plastic, which makes the notebook harder to dispose of responsibly. I look for notebooks bound by sewing and without the extra layer of plastic-based tape I often see over the spine.

Recently, binding notebooks in cork has been gaining popularity. I find the possibilities of cork promising. Cork is produced by peeling the bark off a tree, without harm to the tree, which then replenishes the bark. Cork is therefore renewable.

Photo taken by the author

Compatibility with writing implements

I am currently partial to fountain pens. They were the first type of pen I used in middle school when we graduated from pencils. (I went to middle school in India.)

Fountain pens can be refilled with a specially dedicated ink. The ink can be shipped in recyclable containers. I have high hopes for innovations in the shipping of liquids in waste-free ways in the future.

Fountain pens have the potential to be a waste-free writing implement.

Recently I bought a couple of fountain pens, not having used them in years. I found a brand that used minimal plastic in the pens’ construction. The body of the pen is made of wood and metal. There is still (what looks like) plastic in the filler tube. I hope to find one that is truly plastic-free, one day. Even so, fountain pens are the most sustainable pen option available, relatively.

My decision to use fountain pens affects my choice of notebooks.

A disappointing experiment was with the use of the so-called stone paper notebook, because it wore out any type of pen other than ball-point or gel. The company making the notebook had impressive claims of sustainable sourcing, and the notebook itself was recyclable (using a specialized recycling process that may or not be scalable) but not compostable.

I have ultimately moved away from using stone paper, despite its promising start, because it restricts my choice of pens to plastic-based gel or ball-point pens.

Compatibility with fountain pens is now an important factor in my selection.

Distribution

The way the notebook is packaged and shipped makes a difference to me. I look for a company that ships from near me.

Etsy says that they buy carbon offsets for their shipping, which means that the shipping is carbon neutral. Their claiming this on their site had exactly the effect they intended since, after reading it, I promptly bought several notebooks on Etsy.

When I order from a company for the first time, I don’t know how they are going to package my notebook.

Once, I ordered a notebook that I was excited about because all the paper used to make it was 100% post-consumer waste (which means it is recycled, and specifically from the waste thrown away by the consumer, as opposed to waste from industrial processes).

When the notebook arrived, it was wrapped in plastic shrink wrap. I am not sure why it needed to be; it came in a perfectly waterproof mailing bag. I blurted “Oh, come on!” as I opened the package, and complained for a few minutes about how the notebook company had just undercut all the grand sustainability claims on their site.

Other companies have made efforts to ship with minimal plastic packaging. I’ve recently seen notebooks at Michael’s displayed without shrink-wrap, just a cardboard sleeve, something I’d never seen in any store in my childhood.

Some Etsy sellers have options for whether you want the product shrink-wrapped or respond to buyers’ requests on how to package the product.

None of the choices are perfect

As a notebook user and a consumer, I’m not trying to reduce my carbon footprint or waste production to zero. That’s not possible, given that the stationery industry (and all industries) were not designed with sustainability in mind. My choices are to buy imperfect products, or buy nothing.

I’m not trying to find perfect products and companies and reward them with my patronage.

I’m trying to identify the building blocks of a scalable solution — the combination of sourcing, packaging, shipping, and use that will be improved upon until they fit together into a redesigned, sustainable supply chain.

I’m finding the companies that are innovating on one or more aspects of sustainability, even if they aren’t perfect at the other aspects. Trying out new materials that have potential, even if they are not on the cutting edge of shipping. Innovating in shipping, even if they haven’t got the ideal packaging.

They’re part of the way there. I’m part of their market because I want their market to expand.

I’m modifying my behavior — what I use notebooks for, when I buy them, what I write with — to find a process that works. None of it’s perfect, and I’m bumping up against the roadblocks that many people who want to live sustainably face.

That’s good because finding the common roadblocks is the first step to finding scalable solutions.

Note: I have no affiliation or financial connection to any notebook, paper, pen, or other brand mentioned in this article.

Originally appeared on Sustainability Experiments.

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