Ergonomics has been on my mind as I set up my home office after moving into a new apartment. To get a desk of the right height, I had to build my own out of a plank from a hardware store and a couple of filing cabinets. I want my books and notebooks within arm’s length, and to be able to wheel my chair from the computer desk to the writing station to the sketching station with ease, without wires getting in the way.
I’ve also been thinking about cognitive ergonomics and how a slower pace of life suits our creativity. How walking is good for us. These aren’t efficient ways to live, but they are good ways.
Many technologies that were better for the environment than what we have currently are dismissed as obsolete because they are inefficient. It’s like when futurists thought that we’d take planes everywhere like the Jetsons, and cars were a thing of the past. And how we don’t need to know how to write by hand anymore because we have computers.
But the market for paper products is booming because we’ve burned ourselves out on screens. And flying isn’t most people’s preferred mode of transport.
The new options are just that — options. Not replacements. We have centuries worth of technologies to experiment with in creating our own portfolio of tools. There are still times when the best choice is a typewriter or vinyl record because ‘best’ is about more than efficiency.
Made from renewable paper and conducive to creative thinking
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Where did this ‘goldfish’ factoid come from? The origin was a study done by Microsoft’s advertising department, which was then popularized by Time magazine. All the links I found to the pdf of the original study were broken. Microsoft has taken it off of their website, based on my search on their site for the word ‘goldfish’.
Does the finding sound plausible to anyone? We don’t read entire books in 8-second increments. A standard ‘Pomodoro’ is 20 minutes. “How are Netflix binges a thing?” this blog post, which is worth a read, says in criticism of the ‘study’ — the finding neither passes the common sense test nor does it properly cite scientific research.
Tellingly, the source of this factoid is an advertising department. Those bemoaning our lack of attention are those who would like a piece of it for their own purposes.
I will spend hours of my attention on subjects worthy of it — books, math problems, videos that I choose for myself. Whereas I can ‘x’ out of that ad window in a fraction of a second.
I think this is what is really happening. As we grow accustomed to the internet, we hone our defenses. We filter out the junk and attention sinks with heightened instincts, making advertisers’ jobs harder.
Good! Say I.
More concerning is that this baseless goldfish factoid has been repeated far and wide on the internet and has become our ‘truth’. An apt demonstration of the dangers of our current information ecosystem.
To counteract this trend, let us resolve to only link to ‘studies’ and sources after we have drilled down to their origin. Too much of the coverage I found on the Microsoft study linked to other articles. Only a few linked to Microsoft’s page on the subject, and those are the links that are now broken.
Instead, we’d do well to make sure we have, at minimum, a cursory understanding of the original research. We can read and reference others’ coverage of a study too, but we have to follow through to the original link and make sure there is substance to it.
Every time I go to a big-chain coffee store I make sure to pointedly ask for my coffee “for here, in a mug” while making eye contact with the cashier and miming hold a mug. Even with all this emphasis, about every one time in twenty I get handed a disposable coffee cup. At this point I’m torn: that cup is going in the trash no matter what I do now; but I do dislike the experience of drinking from a disposable coffee cup. I usually end up asking the barista to pour it into a mug for me.
On a recent flight from Portland, I was trying to choose a drink that was the least likely to come in a plastic cup. I picked tea, figuring that paper wasn’t great, but better than plastic. The flight attendant gave me a paper cup of hot water and a plastic cup. “I don’t need that,” I said. She said it was for the bag. I might have made more of a fuss if I hadn’t been sleepy and she hadn’t looked so hurried. It was too late anyway: the cup was already on my seat-back tray. For that matter: it was too late anyway because the cup had already been moulded out of plastic and sold to the airline.
The next day I’m at my cafeteria at work, and I see the new “Skip the straw” sign. I wonder how many people ask for their drink without a straw. And then I wonder how many of those requests they actually comply with. And then I wonder how many fewer plastic straws they order from the manufacturer, and how that lower demand for straws affects the manufacturer’s decision on how many straws to make. Because that’s the thing that ultimately matters: how much petroleum gets turned into plastic, and into straws. Or into disposable coffee cup lining. Once it’s made, it’s already a problem: where can it possibly go, ultimately, other than the trash? It doesn’t start being a problem when it gets handed to you by a harried barista who was trained to, by the big-chain coffee company they work for.
“Skip the straw” signs strike me as a way for restaurants to make their plastic products orders from manufacturers your problem. Do they really have plans to stop ordering plastic straws and reducing the demand for them? If not, do they expect anything to happen, other than customers squirming with guilt over “their” carbon footprint? It’s actually the restaurant’s carbon footprint.
This is my complaint about the 0-waste movement: it operates at the individual level. The best an individual can do is decrease the demand for plastic products by 1. Meanwhile, the economy rages on as always, driven by other, busier or less motivated consumers, restaurants and large corporations. As an individual, the best you can do is try to keep “your” hands clean and absolve yourself of guilt. And you’ll spend enormous amounts of time and attention to do it. Time and attention that you could be spending on holding the real culprits to account.
Even so, I found that my 0-waste experiment had advantages, and it might for others too. Some reasons to give it a try are:
Understanding the difficulties and use-cases of attempting 0-waste enables you to design tools and practices for others who may be inclined to do the same. Ideas: apps, reusable containers, tools for cleaning and tracking containers.
A few best practices are worth adopting, even if they aren’t foolproof: buying 0-waste produce, making and substituting most packaged food, and composting.
Decreasing your dependency on individual companies enables you to boycott them in the future. And that is where the REAL leverage is.
Having a heightened sensitivity to waste and an appreciation of the scale of the problem. Get angry. And channel that anger into something that works.