A small change with a potentially big impact: the recycled Post-it.

Before I wrote this article, I felt a pressure to write something significant and meaningful about sustainability. That feeling of weight didn’t make it any easier to get anything written, but then, one sunny morning in Utrecht an idea dawned on me, and I wrote this article. This article isn’t about some significant, meaningful sustainability movement. But it could be.

For the past 8 years of my designer life, I’ve used and seen one particular product quite a few times, but never really stopped to think about its value and impact.

I’m talking about the paper sticky note, better known as the Post-it. The designer’s best friend when it comes to generating ideas and organizing thoughts and tasks. For me, and I believe many others too, the sticky note has a significant value in the design process. It impacts our way of working, and therefore on what we design and bring into this world. Would it then be farfetched to say that the sticky notes we use have an impact on the planet?

Post-its in their natural habitat

Now, you probably saw this coming. The idea that hit me that sunny morning in Utrecht was the impact of the Post-it itself. The Post-it’s physical presence on our planet. The small piece of paper that we jot down ideas on, stick onto a wall, to eventually be cast out into some form of waste disposal. You’ve seen the stock photos: every (creative) team uses plenty of paper sticky notes.

So, I started wondering. Is there something about using the paper sticky note we could change to positively impact our environment?

The short answer is yes. At some monetary cost. The longer, and might I say the slightly ridiculous answer, follows now.

Better for the environment

What makes something good for the environment? Well, ‘non-existing’ is a verb that comes to mind, because almost anything has some form of impact. Think about Tesla cars (my love for Tesla is not a hidden thing). Tesla cars are light-years ahead of fossil fuel cars when it comes to impact on global warming. If the electricity that charges the car comes from a renewable source then we could say it has zero impact on global warming, but how is the renewable energy generated? Right, there is some form of physical product that has its own impact. Catch my drift? We are and should be, continuing our sustainability efforts, but ‘good’ for the environment seems to mean something between having an outright positive impact, like planting a tree and having a (substantially) less-bad impact than the item it’s replacing.

Having said all that, let’s take a look at some less-bad Post-it notes.

Andy Kwan, Arjan Dhaliwal, and Emmanuel Augustine, students at the University of British Columbia, took a deep dive into the sustainable aspects of two types of Post-it notes [1]. One being regular, non-recycled Post-it notes, and the second being recycled Post-it notes, both from 3M, the manufacturer of the world’s best sticky notes. (Evidence for this bold statement is provided in the next section.)

They dove in and came back up with clear, well-supported statements, which can be summarized as follows:

If you want to use significantly less bad Post-it notes, use the recycled ones.

They use no new paper, so no new trees are cut. The energy needed to create them is between 40 to 60 percent less because processing trees into pulp takes more power than de-inking and pulping old paper. If that wasn’t enough, recycling paper also results in about 74% decreased air pollution and 35% less water pollution [2].

Ironically, we save a whole lot of trees by switching from non-recycled to recycled Post-it notes. Of course, only if you already use Post-its. (Don’t go buying extra Post-its because of me, that’s the opposite of what this article is for.)

You must be thinking, it can’t be all good, and it isn’t. The de-inking of recycled paper uses chemicals and results in a sludge that needs to be appropriately processed to prevent environmental damage. Like I wrote earlier, ‘good for the environment’ sometimes just means ‘less bad.’ In the case of the recycled Post-it notes, they seem substantially less harmful than the non-recycled ones.

Okay, moving on.

Better for (designerly) use

After getting this far into the article, you’re probably surprised to see that people actually research things about Post-its. To be frank, I was too. Before I switched the Post-its we use at Purpose Design to recycled ones, I did a bit of googling to see if there are any quality differences between the regular and the recycled ones. What I found was a-mah-zing for someone who likes to make decisions based on science. (me)

Matti Schneider, a ‘mad scientist’ from France, did what he called ‘Stupid Science’ and compared 23 types of sticky notes [3]. Turns out the winner is the friggin’ Recycled Post-it from 3M. He checked for stickiness, ink penetration (how much ink reaches the 2nd sticky note), ease of opening, price, smell and sustainability. Don’t you hate those shitty sticky notes that fall off the wall one second after you stick it on? Or when someone sneezes? Yeah, the world owes Matti Schneider a great deal of gratitude for doing this ‘Stupid Science.’ I just find it awesome someone did this.

Not only are the recycled Post-its better for the planet, but they also protect us from sore backs because we don’t have to pick them up, or broken body parts because someone slipped on a shitty sticky note. (Dangers of the job…)

However, 3M’s regular, non-recycled Post-it doesn’t fall far behind in the tests, so I’ll add one more note from my designer point of view. The recycled range of Post-its has pleasing, less-saturated colored versions of the non-recycled, bubblegum eyesores they call normal, colored Post-its. See for yourself. And, the recycled versions come in handy cardboard boxes. No more wrestling with individually, plastic-wrapped pads.

Recycled Post-its on the left, regular Post-its on the right

Images courtesy of 3M, the manufacturer of the world’s best sticky notes.

Better for your wallet?

Nope, but it looks like prices of the recycled Post-its are coming closer to their non-recycled counterpart. Here’s a terribly designed sheet filled with numbers to show the price difference between the different Post-its. Prices are taken off Amazon.de and excluding taxes. The green bar on the right shows the difference in cost after a year when using 40 pads of 100 sheets every week. (Which is a LOT if you ask me.)

Pricing of Post-its on Amazon Germany

Click here to view the sheet to click on URLs of the actual products.

The yellow, or ‘normal,’ Post-its both cost about the same, recycled or otherwise and in both sizes that I like to use (76x76mm and 76x127mm).

The multicolored versions have steeper price differences. The reason for that is not known to me, but my theory is that 3M hired an actual designer to pick out proper colors (just kidding).

Conclusion

So, the recycled Post-it notes look good (according to a famous designer, ahem), don’t bleed through and stay on the wall until you actually want them to come off. Above all, they are significantly better for our environment than the non-recycled versions. Yes, you will pay more in most cases, but I ask you the following: The positive impact your product makes, what if it could start before its creation?

It might be a small step for sustainability, but if we all make it together, that’s gonna make one hell of an impact.

References

[1] Kwan, A., Dhaliwal, A., & Augustine, E., Eco-Friendly Office Supplies: Post-it Notes //open.library.ubc.ca/cIRcle/collections/undergraduateresearch/18861/items/1.0108827

[2] Baeyens, J., Brems, A., & Dewil, R. (2010). Recovery and recycling of post-consumer waste materials. Part 1. Generalities and target wastes (paper, cardboard and aluminium cans). International Journal of Sustainable Engineering, 3(3), 148–158.

[3] Schneider, M., Stupid Science: I compared 23 sticky notes to help you spare wallet and planet (Nov 23, 2017) medium.com //medium.com/@MattiSG/stupid-science-i-compared-23-sticky-notes-to-help-you-spare-wallet-and-planet-fc9b97d88503