05 February 2013

Green Garbage

Throwing away huge quantities of paper may not seem like much of a green moment, even if they're going into a recycling bin.  But read on...

I changed offices last summer.  In the process, I got rid of a fair number of books.  Duplicates and old editions of teaching texts went off to Better World Books, where they'll be resold or donated.

But then I moved all the files from my desk drawers and file cabinets to the furniture in the new office, leaving them pretty close to full.

I have notes from courses I took in graduate school, from studying for doctoral exams, from courses I've taught going all the way back to when I first came to this university ... in 1998.  I've typed up a lot of those notes, and revised a lot of the materials, but I still have folders full of hand-written notes and photocopies of handouts.  Semester, after semester, after semester.  Plus hand-written notes and photocopies of articles related to papers I've given at conferences and subsequently (eventually) published.

And so I'm facing a choice made across the nation in all kinds of contexts: downsize or upsize. 

The average size of a home in the US ballooned from 1400 to 2700 square feet between 1970 and 2009.  Meanwhile, the average household size decreased by half a person.* So what accounts for the near doubling in the size of all those houses?

Stuff.

We own more clothing, more electronics, more furniture, more kitchen appliances... more of pretty much everything than people in our parents' generation. And we build ever bigger houses to store all of that stuff.  We probably store more files, too.

Quick calculation: what percentage of the items in your home have you actually used in the past 12 months?  (Challenge: take a walk through your house, including basement, attic, garage, and really pay attention.)

So I have a choice: I can buy a bunch of file boxes and file those excess papers and store them someplace, or I can go through the files and get rid of the papers that I don't need any more.  Duplicates of exercises that I've since revised; hand-written class notes I'll never refer to again; rosters, attendance records, printouts of articles; photocopies handed down from my predecessor.

So I've been going through a folder or two a week and getting rid of almost everything.  One file drawer is almost empty.  By the end of the term, I may no longer need a filing cabinet.

Meanwhile, I'm also going through computer files and deleting old versions of assignments, syllabi, handouts, and materials for use on line.  It turns out that data storage, though it feels free because it's paperless, in fact uses a huge amount of energy.

If we keep stuff under control, we'll never be tempted to move to a bigger space just to store more stuff.  As often happens with these kinds of choices, the environmental impact is mirrored in a positive impact on the wallet.

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* Isn't statistics fun?