Why shred, when you can make paper bricks? (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Tue, 13 Sep 2011

Why shred, when you can make paper bricks?

What do you do about all that mail -- junk and otherwise -- with incriminating information on it? You know, the stuff with your name and bank account numbers and such that you don't want an identity thief to get? If you toss them in the recycling (or, worse, the trash), who knows what might happen to them between here and the recycling plant?

Some people buy a shredder -- an electric lump of a thing that sits in a corner and turns paper into streamers. I guess it sounds kinda fun, but it costs money, uses electricity and takes up space. Or you can take all the assorted bits of paper and burn them in the fireplace or barbecue, but that's kind of a hassle and it makes a lot of ash and smoke.

A few years ago, Dave came up with what we think is a better idea: we make the paper into condensed paper fire-bricks, which we then burn the fireplace. They burn much cleaner and more slowly than those bits of paper, and they're fun to make. Here's how.

[ Let the paper soak for a long time ] First, you collect a lot of paper -- we keep a separate wastebasket where we crumple all the papers (no need to shred them).

When you have enough to start a batch, put the papers in a bucket or other container, and fill with enough water that the paper is covered.

Let that sit for a while -- a week or two -- stirring occasionally (maybe twice a day). Ideally, you want the paper to break down to a soup in which you can't read any of the incriminating text. But if you get impatient, you can move on to the next step little early as long as all everything has gotten soft and the paper is starting to break up.

[ Transfer the wet pulp to the mold ] Once everything's soft and soupy, you want a mold of whatever shape you want your eventual brick to be. Cardboard ice cream containers (pictured here) work nicely, or you can use a bowl, a small bucket, practically anything.

[ squeeze out the excess water ] Transfer the wet mush into your mold, squeezing out as much excess water as you can. The drier you can get it, the less time it will take to cure. Pack it into your mold as tightly as you can (understanding that if you're using a cardboard ice cream container, it can't take much packing of wet stuff).

[ Ready to remove from the mold ] Put the mold in a sunny place in the hard to dry, if possible. You can speed the process along by using a mold that lets excess water drain, or by compressing the mush every so often (once or twice a day) and letting any water run out. Early on, we put weights on top to keep the mush compressed, but it doesn't seem to make that much difference.

When it seems quite dry, remove it from the mold. (This mold is an old microwave popcorn making bowl that cracked, so it's no longer good for making popcorn.)

[ Two early paper brick efforts ] Early on, we thought it might be interesting to pack in some other flammable material, like bits of wood and nutshells left over from feeding squirrels. That gives you a lumpy breccia (the lower brick in the picture) that doesn't burn very consistently, because it's full of holes. Not a good idea, as it turned out.

The upper brick in the photo is what you get if you let your soup dissolve for a long time and don't add any lumpy stuff to it: a nice smooth brick of pressed paperboard. It's okay to add a bit of small soft stuff like dryer lint. But skip the nutshells -- those can go in the compost bin or yard waste container.

[ Final brick, ready to burn ] Your final brick, removed from the mold, should be a nice homogeneous piece of paperboard. It's still fairly light and not very dense ... but it burns smoothly and cleanly, and doesn't send sparks up the chimmney like those original bits of paper would have.

Save on heating bills? Well, if you make paper bricks all summer, by winter time you'll probably have saved up enough to burn for ... maybe an hour or two. No, this isn't going to heat your home. Still, it's an amusing, inexpensive and electricity-free way of disposing of that pesky printed privacy-pilfering paper that plagues us all.

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