Sustainability Sketchbooks

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Alexis Crossley (CAS, ’16) made her sketchbook our of old flyers and class hand-outs and used yarn from a scarf for the binding.


Did you know that in order to manufacture just one sheet of paper it takes 17 watt hours of electricity? This may seem like a small number, but multiply it by 33,000+ students with a print quota of 100 pages per semester, and the number starts to take on greater importance. To produce the 100 pages allowed to each BU student each semester it takes over 45 million watt hours, which is enough energy to power 3.6 homes for a year. This doesn’t take into account the nearly 10,000 faculty and staff on campus who also have printing needs; it’s clear BU’s paper use adds up over time.

Even in the digital age there is still a need for paper, especially in situations where using technology is unavailable or impractical. Based on this idea, CAS biology professor Nathan Stewart, tasked students in his Biological Designs for Sustainability (CAS BI486/686) class to create notebooks made entirely from post-consumer materials.

“The idea for the sustainability sketchbook came to me while conducting field research in Greenland. Members of Fridtjof Nansen’s 1888 exploration kept hand-sewn field journals during their historic crossing of the Greenland ice sheet on skis. Reflection on the durability, renewability, and lifetime of these journals in juxtaposition to our fragile field-laptops (while traveling by sled at -50 degrees F) seeded the sketchbook concept,” said Stewart.

The idea resurfaced back at BU when he was looking for a way to repurpose a stack of 65 misprinted pages left in a copier. These pages would eventually be used as the front and back covers for each student’s sketchbook.

The assignment required that each student craft a sketchbook to be used for in-class activities using 100% post-consumer recycled materials or materials that were already en route to a landfill or recycling facility.

“The goal of this exercise was to facilitate student engagement with an integral product-consumption-waste stream here at BU. Our campus-wide office paper use and misuse was an ideal framework for a simple yet productive sustainability project. Ultimately students created their own sustainable interaction design by disrupting disposal with renewal and reuse,” said Stewart.

Students used a wide range of materials for their sketchbooks including old class hand-outs, brown paper grocery bags, boot laces, and knitting yarn. One ambitious student even created new paper by turning waste paper into pulp and hand-processing it.

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Pages from Yue Chan’s (CAS ’15) sustainability sketchbook, which she made by turning waste paper into pulp and hand-processing it

“The class felt empowered in their ability to push back against paper consumption and create an alternative to one of our most common disposable academic goods, the notebook. Many students feel that recycled notebook-making could become culture on campus if more widely publicized – consider the economic and environmental benefits of collecting and binding pages for your courses and, simultaneously, saving the cash you would have spent on standard manufactured notebooks!”

Stewart’s students said the assignment taught them a lot about paper consumption and sustainability in general.

“I learned just how easy it is to re-use something as simple as a piece of paper. I think far too often people are too quick to throw something out, presuming it useless without a second thought. I feel as though I am more inclined to try and use things in multiple ways now that I have successfully created a recycled notebook,” said Alexis Crossley, (CAS ’16).

Yue Chan (CAS ’15) agreed that the assignment helped her to reflect upon her own behaviors and how she could be more aware in the future.

“I try to reuse, recycle, and reduce with everything I do. However often times when I recycle or reuse something, I don’t do much else with it other than to throw it in a recycling bin or use it again once then throw it away. For example, I’ll use a paper grocery bag again as a temporary recycling bin in my room, and once full it’s I’ll throw it out. I sometimes wish the term “re-purpose” was included. I feel like it gives a more specific guide on how to “reuse” something and extends the life span of that item even after its original purpose has been served.”

Irvin Lopez (CAS ’16) said that not only did the assignment help him learn about sustainability, but the sketchbook proved to be a very important tool in class.

“Every week in class we discuss articles presented by my peers relating to ongoing issues in the world that need our attention. These articles often reflect on issues such as deforestation, coral reef damage, sustainable architecture, national parks and many others. We as a class critically analyze the issues and discuss different methods we can use to improve the problems. Our responses are based on scientific readings, which help us reflect actively to the problems and think of creative solutions to try and fix them. I use the sketchbook to reflect on the issues presented in class. I also express my opinion and sometimes I include a drawing to my reflection, which helps me express how I feel about the problem.”

Kate Topalis, (CAS ’15) said she is interested in taking what she learned in Stewart’s course and applying the ideas on a broader scale.

“I would love to see how this project could be transferred not only to other courses, but to the creation of other materials. Anything we can do to get people talking and thinking about why this process is important is a good thing.”

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