Death and taxes . . . and reincarnation

industrial_detritus.jpgRecently I got an uncharacteristic surge of organizational momentum, girded my loins, donned my battle gear,  and dove into the swamp of my home office filing system.  Many of you will appreciate from your own experience what a daunting task this can be.  I was aided by inspiration of the book Getting Things Done, which appears typical of those somewhat smarmy looking self-help books that are piled all over the tables of airport bookstores against which you bang your carry-on as you negotiate the laughably narrow aisles.  But, because it had been recommended by a friend of mine, I happened to buy a copy on the way home from Christmas travel a month or so ago.

It turned out to be, well, a life-changing experience would be too strong a way to put it.  But let’s just say that the demands of everyday life, and particularly the sense of control over information flow, had been spinning ever more dizzily out of control over the last few weeks months years, and I was, shall we say, receptive to finding some way out.  I must confess that, despite the appallingly geekish subject matter, I couldn’t put the thing down.  This was the real McCoy.  Yes!  I can do this!  Concrete suggestions! So I read the book and — this is the important part — actually made a conscious decision to start putting some of its recommendations into practice.  Long story short: it works for me.

garbage_in.jpgAnyway, I did not intend this to become a book review, though I do highly recommend it (Warning: the book and its author David Allen have grown into something approaching a cult — see here for an entree into this world).  Really this is all backdrop for a rumination that emerged as I was happily going through my office, printing out neat little labels for my neat little manila file folders, absent-mindedly humming advertising jingles as I arranged them in alphabetical order, merrily consigning decades-old bank statements to the pile destined for the shredder in a surprisingly liberating catharsis, etc.

Yes, the shredder: I never thought of myself as the kind of guy who would own a shredder.  Isn’t that the sort of thing that CIA operatives and high-level corporate mucky-mucks have, not real people like me?  Well my very responsible spouse convinced me that grown-ups need such things to prevent identity theft, etc, etc. I did not press the point on my mind at the time, which was what motivation someone might have for stealing my identity. So we got one.  And there is indeed something pleasing about shredding those old records and being done with them once and for all.

mix_it_up.jpgOr not.  And that, dear friends, brings me to the real subject of today’s shaggy dog story.  In embarking on my semi-decadal office reorganization, it quickly became evident that there was a lot of crap here.  And because shredded office paper is largely air (seems like it would make great insulation, though I suppose there would be a fire hazard), it takes up a lot of space. What to do with the stuff?  It’s unwieldy and takes flight at the slightest breath of breeze.  Not good for dumping into the recycling bin.

Naturally, I wondered whether it is compostable.  So I tried an experiment. I figured let’s just try one bagful and see what happens.  So I dumped it into the compost bin and brushed off my hands. To my surprise, it was basically completely gone in two weeks.  Mind you, this is January and the creek has been frozen over probably more days than not during that time. The microbes are a bit more sluggish this time of year than in the summer.  Yet, when I pitchforked the stuff up and turned it over, there was almost no sign of little bleach-white shreds of paper.  Only that pleasing, earthy amalgam of rotting leaves, almost recognizable former vegetable bits, pupae of some sort of large fly, and the odd remarkably intact apple.

2weekslater.jpgSo the moral of the story is that there is life after death and taxes.  My ancient yellowing tax worksheets and records of dentist bills and pay stubs have returned, literally, to the ecosystem that, via some convoluted path, spawned them.  In a few months’ time, when I get back to Phase II of the biodiversity restoration project, they will be nourishing the little root-hairs of native plants, and from there on to caterpillars, birds, and what not. It’s comforting in some way to believe that the information superhighway leads to a dirt road, and thence into an old field full of untidy life.

About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
This entry was posted in Biodiversity, Books and media, Sustainability and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Death and taxes . . . and reincarnation

  1. Niklas says:

    Paper composts very well, because it’s made from wood. I wonder too why the apple is still there.
    Maybe it was spritzed ?

  2. Emily says:

    I don’t know what kind of documents you shred, but you may want to be careful about the inks you’re composting. Most newspaper products are soy-based (organic) inks, and make a fine compost material.

    If you are using office toner-based ink, the paper will recycle, but the ink will not — toner, is essentially a plastic. So it doesn’t decompose. Ink from inkjet printers are different – you can just check that out on your printer cartridge or ask the company you bought it from.

    Junk mail is also an issue depending on where it is printed.

  3. Emmett Duffy says:

    Good points Emily. I was wondering about this (and hoping someone would comment and enlighten me!). If anyone can direct me to a good source of info on the composition and environmental impacts of different printer inks, I will check it out and perhaps return to this issue. It would be good to be able to compost the paper if possible. I wonder what happens to all that ink when the paper gets recycled?