The Paper Diet

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First, the facts: The average American uses about é of a tree per year; and a tree makes (on average), 80,500 sheets of paper. It made me wonder: could I put myself on a paper diet—using one tenth the paper of the average American? I"m going to try.

A sheet of paper weights 4.5 grams, and an ounce is about 28.3 grams. That means that there are 6.29 sheets of paper per ounce. According to, the average person uses 580 pounds per person of paper per year. That translates to a staggering 58,371 sheets of paper. My goal is to use only 5,837 sheets in 2010.

If I was to implement this diet in terms of caloric intake, I would know (being a health educator) that such an affair is dangerous. At the very least, it would be unwise without medical supervision. Is my self-inflicted paper diet any more sensible? We’ll see. Over the next 54 weeks, I"ll attempt to complete this exercise within my self-imposed perimeters.

Are there rules to this experiment? Of course! Every good experiment has rules. I’m writing them down for you and also for myself so that if I’m tempted to cheat I can catch myself. That, I feel, will make it easier to be more ethical. I watched the 100 Mile Diet on Planet Green where an entire town agrees to only eat foods within 100 miles of their location for 100 days, and I’ve seen firsthand how problems can arise when you don’t iron out the rules from day one.

I"ll admit I"m a little worried. Not only do I use paper to write daily notes and shopping lists, but I also make my living by writing. Try though I might (and I do try), I can’t edit from a screen. I must print out a copy, look it over, fix it, and then print out another one that I hope will be perfect. It usually isn’t. Then, I have to repeat the whole process again.

My first rule is that I will only count standard-issue office paper in my total. I will not include other necessary paper products like toilet paper, napkins or tissues. I’m all for saving the planet, don’t get me wrong, but I draw a line at paper used for body fluid clean-up.

In order to avoid any confusion or controversy, I’ve decided to go out and buy 5,837 sheets of paper purchased off a store shelf with some recycled content. This eliminates any possible confusion between the paper that’s in my house now and the paper for the experiment. One thing I can already see is that I’m going to have to be much less generous with allowing other people to use my printer. However, I will still allow use of my printer, if such a printing is an emergency, as long as the person in question brings his or her own paper.

Editors, I’ve found, even environmentally conscious ones, consider it disrespectful if you submit something on scrap paper. And it is especially difficult to be a planet-conscious writer when committees and contests want everything in triplicate. Even though over 5,000 sheets seems like a lot to me, I wonder if it will be enough when November or December comes along. Am I going to have to forgo some grant and submission opportunities? Will this experiment affect my bottom line?

A week to go and I’m already starting to panic. Stay tuned…

MARTINA ROBINSON is an artist, activist and academic who lives in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts.