Congratulations are in order (I hope) since you’ve now filed your income taxes. For us this typically means cleaning out our “tax” file for the year and getting rid of some of that pretty paper. We sort our paper records into those that are simply recycled and those that must be shredded before recycling. Our recycling paper is picked up weekly with our other recyclables. We accumulate our paper to shred in a box we take to the FedEx store once a year where it is shred for a nominal rate per pound. (Often community organizations offer free shredding periodically.)
Besides clearing out space, recycling paper also benefits the environment. Big deal? Yes! In 2014 the United States produced over 20 million tons of paper which required about 55 to 110 million trees. Said another way, every 10,000 – 20,000 sheets of paper required a tree. In that same year, 53% of paper was recycled. So every sheet of paper recycled went toward saving a tree.
Environmentally, every tree that was not cut down for paper absorbed CO2 . On average, one acre of new forest can sequester about 2.5 tons of carbon annually. Young trees absorb CO2 at a rate of 13 pounds per tree each year. Trees reach their most productive stage of carbon storage at about 10 years at which point they are estimated to absorb 48 pounds of CO2 per year. At that rate, they release enough oxygen back into the atmosphere to support two human beings.
Besides recycling our paper, we have taken other steps to reduce our “paper consumption” including:
- E-bank statements (Yes, we still balance our accounts monthly and when it is more convenient to print it out to analyze, we use the back of previously used paper. In fact, we keep a stack of previously used paper next to our printer for printing on the unused side);
- Electronic bill pay (eliminating paper and postage);
- E-newspapers (which took a bit of getting used to but I’m comfortable now);
- E-receipts from hotels, and retail stores (this has taken a bit of getting used to but I’m making progress);
- E-IRS filing (we’re saving our returns as PDF files for easy future access);
- Grocery bags – we exclusively use cloth reusable bags;
- E-tickets for sporting events and concerts (this was my most recent hurdle because I was doubtful of the technology);
- E-Invitations (aka e-vites) which seem to be evolving to the norm;
- Paper towels – our usage has fallen to almost zero with cloth taking up the slack for almost everything.
- Cloth napkins used in lieu of paper napkins;
- Air dryers in lieu of paper towels in public facilities.
One thing I’d like to change would be the amount of junk mail we receive from the U.S. Post Office. I recently read an estimate that in the U.S., 3,200 mail order catalogs are mailed every second and that 97% of these catalogs are disposed of the day they arrive. I recognize that advertisers want to advertise and the post office wants revenue but I would gladly pay a fee to the post office to not receive junk mail! In fact, I think I’ll contact my congressional representatives to propose this idea. (Seems they are not getting much else done these days.)
Worldwide, roughly half of the paper we use is sent to the scrap heap; the other half is recycled and repurposed. Some parts of the world (e.g., Northern Europe) recycle over 75% of their paper. The bottom line, reducing our paper consumption is good; recycling what we use is also good; and cleaning out and recycling all those old unnecessary records saves trees which benefits the environment. And we know, growing a seedling into a full size tree takes a long time!
P.S. If you’re wondering how long should you keep your tax records, IRS guidelines state that for most cases, 2-3 years will suffice. In general:
- Keep records for 3 years from the date you filed your original return or 2 years from the date you paid the tax, whichever is later, if you file a claim for credit or refund after you file your return.
- Keep records for 7 years if you file a claim for a loss from worthless securities or bad debt deduction.
- Of course if you don’t file a return, file a fraudulent return, or don’t report income you should, then keeping records longer is warranted – duh!