My wife and I have been hard at work obtaining supplies, developing practical skills, knitting key relationships, and generally preparing for societal disruption for about four years now. Our journey into this endeavor began after some research into the nature of the U.S. dollar (or more appropriately, Federal Reserve Notes) woke us up to the fragility of our world systems. For this and other reasons, we have taken the message of Proverbs 22:3 to heart: “A prudent man foreseeth the evil, and hideth himself; but the simple pass on, and are punished.”
Achieving a level of satisfactory preparedness for what life may have in store has been no easy task in Northern Arizona, where we have little water, poor soil, and high property prices. However, we have made great strides toward system independence in large part by consistently finding uncommon uses for commonly available goods. One often-overlooked item has become almost indispensable to our day-to-day activity, and would surely make even more impact to our well-being in an extended grid-down or TEOTWAWKI type scenario. I write about it because I see it get very little mention in survival-type forums, and I think others may find it helpful as well.
I’m talking about newspaper. Newspaper has myriad useful properties of interest to a prepper or homesteader. Newspaper is many things, including: absorbent, insulative, filling, soft, flammable, easily reducible, compact, lightweight, non-toxic, and perhaps best of all, cheap and highly available. Let me highlight a few of these properties and show some practical applications of each.
Cheap and Highly Available
Although newspaper publishers have fallen on hard times with more Americans getting their information from television and the Internet, it is not at all hard to come by paper supply. I live in a small town of about 30,000 people and our local Lion’s Club drop-off bins are always jam packed. While I do not suggest raiding charity bins for your stash, here are a few things that have worked for me:
- Ask around. I get all the papers I can use for free. At one point I simply asked my co-workers for their back issues when they finished reading them and they gladly obliged. To them it was clutter and something to tote to the curb each Tuesday. Just ask the paper subscribers in your life for their supply and prepare for a constant stream of material.
- The trash. Certain places that sell breakfast often have tables of early morning readers processing their daily dose of information over a cup of coffee. I’m not personally above gathering them off the tables as patrons leave or picking up a pile left on top of the garbage sorter at a fast food joint.
- Curbside recycling bins and drop-off location dumpsters. These are jammed with paper. While some cities frown on people taking anything out of their containers (they are, after all, a source of profit), it might be worth a call to get permission. At the least, checking out either will let you know which neighbors to hit up the night before garbage day.
- Newspaper facilities. If you have one in your area, publishers will willingly sell you the unused portions of their rolls, typically for pocket change. At my local press a leftover roll will run about two to three bucks. The upside to this is they are completely free of ink and have been stored indoors. Teachers will often utilize this for cheap, clean craft project paper for the kids.
- Recyclers. If you have a recycling facility nearby, newspaper can be had for mere pennies per pound. Last I checked, the going rate was $.03 per pound/$6.00 per ton. You’ll have to pay them a little more than they bought it for, but not by much.
This is what first got me to asking for old newspapers in the first place. Newspaper, at its core, is very dry wood material in thin form. It burns fast with when “fluffed” or crumpled to allow air movement, and slower if more compressed. Here is how I’ve used it in the past:
- Fire starter. A few pages of newspaper crumpled into loose balls, topped with kindling, topped with a split dry log is usually all it takes to get a roaring fire built in my indoor fireplace or outdoor fire pit.
- Charcoal grilling. Two balls of newspaper at the base of a charcoal chimney starter, whether the store bought types such as the Weber version, or a homemade one made out of an old can works much better than lighter fluid. Not only will it light all your coals easier, it’s cleaner and unlikely to blow up in your face.
- Cooking. My grandparents used to have a grill that utilized only newspaper to cook on. Quite a while back I even saw these advertised on late night TV. These cookers worked like a charcoal grill, but somehow made use of newspaper balls as the heat source instead. How it made crumpled paper burn long enough to make raw burger and steak into a family meal is beyond me, but it always worked like a charm on Grandpa’s back patio with very little muss and fuss. These are somewhat hard to find, but I remember it working well and would certainly pick one up if I happened across one at a yard sale.
- Log alternative. Not only does newspaper make for good fire starter, in a more compacted form it can produce a fair amount of longer-term heat. In a pinch a section of newspaper rolled into a cylinder and bound with masking tape will burn much like a log. You will have trouble lighting it outright, but when thrown into an already established fire or placed over a bed of newspaper balls and tinder it can replace firewood to some degree.
Newspaper is made of wood pulp, which can also be said of paper towels, toilet paper, and facial tissue. As such, in a pinch it can be used as a cheap replacement for these functions, though the ink has a tendency to smear a bit. One extra benefit to newspaper’s absorbency is that once used you can dry it out for other purposes, such as fire starter or composting. Some other ways I’ve used newspaper over the years:
- Gardening. Here in the southwest our soil runs two varieties: hard-packed or dusty fill. Very few raise crops successfully without full-on soil management efforts. Newspaper has been key in improving my food production efforts considerably. For one, it serves well as the carbon or “brown matter” base necessary to speed the decomposition of the nitrogen or “green matter” materials in my compost bin. Worms love to bed in the stuff, increasing my compost breakdown all the more. Best of all, it serves as a better moisture trap than almost any other common garden materials I have run across, and is certainly the cheapest. When judiciously added to compost or directly to the soil it decreases my need to water as frequently and allows for better root growth. That said, one cannot just add bales of paper to compost or soil, or it will suffocate microorganisms and plants. It took me a while to happen on the best method for breaking it down to manageable bits, but I now use the “bucket method” (described below) extensively. This little bit of effort provides me plenty of loose, carbon-rich, absorbent, and mixable material to work with when planting crops. I am currently experimenting with its use in applications which require potting soil.
- Animal bedding. Confined animals make messes in the same places they eat and sleep. If these messes aren’t taken care of it makes for an unsanitary situation. If one is raising animals for food purposes, this can lead to an increased likelihood of food-borne illnesses. Newspaper is a cheap way to provide your animals soft bedding that can absorb their “downloads” and be thrown out/re-purposed before it becomes a problem.
- Rags. Doing laundry would be much more of a hassle during disruptions to modern lifestyles. As such, it may not be in one’s best interest to use cloth rags or towels for common cleanups. At the least newspaper can alleviate the burden by taking the initial brunt of the mess. When I clean my guns I usually do so on a good layer of newspaper to absorb cleaners and grease while simultaneously preventing scratches from my bench. When my kids or I dirty our hands, I will wipe the bulk of it off with a newspaper before coming in the house to wash up. Newspapers are amazing window cleaners, and are a constant companion when I’m trying to keep the area clean when working on vehicles and machinery. In the ongoing debate between the supremacy of disposable or cloth diapers in TEOTWAWKI in SurvivalBlog, it has been noted that one can extend the life of either type of diaper by padding it with newspaper.
- Deodorizer. Not only does newspaper absorb liquids, it does a fairly competent job of absorbing odor. This is one of the reasons old time butchers would wrap up fish with it. Balled up paper will alleviate musty areas or the after-effects of a spill in a refrigerator drawer. This function is also a side benefit to using it in animal cages.
If you go to a hardware store that sells blown-in or “loose fill” insulation, you basically have two options: fiberglass or cellulose. The cellulose type is typically composed of 75-85% recycled newsprint. Some frown on cellulose as an insulator because of two of its other main properties, namely flammability and absorbency (ask anyone who has had a roof leak into an attic with cellulose fill). However, if accounted for, your old newsprint can serve you quite well as an insulator. Some common usages, outside of raising a building’s r-factor:
- Plant protection. My wife and I, and many other gardeners over the decades, have saved several of our food plants from late frost by simply covering them with a good layer of newspaper. For added effectiveness, we will sometimes then cover this layer with a plastic sheet to prevent moisture from getting through. When the threat is over, simply remove it all and let your plants get some fresh air.
- Airflow barrier. In the winter when I am no longer making use of our evaporative cooler I will place a layer of newspaper behind the grates to avoid the cold air blowing through. Rolled up paper placed at the base of doorways reduces drafts from outside. You get the idea. I caution you to only use newspaper where moisture intrusions won’t happen or can easily be detected and cleaned up, lest you harbor mold.
- Avoiding heat damage. Newspapers are great to have around when one needs to handle slightly hot items (obviously, given its combustibility you don’t want it around things that are flaming hot). If my wife and I are canning or cooking multiple dishes, we save our countertops by laying down a layer of newspaper to act as big oven pads. When I’m zeroing in a gun in the wilderness, I will lay newspaper on my car to avoid paint damage before putting the gun down (rolled up, it also makes a decent bench rest in a pinch). Newspaper spread over metal, such as siding or pipes will help it to avoid getting too hot on a summers day. If wrapped around a skillet handle or building material it will allow you handle what you’re working with.
- Food storage. In the days when my grandfather ran a grocery store, ice came packed in an insulative layer of sawdust, which allowed it to be shipped long distances, even through Arizona, without too much loss of product. Since newspaper is essentially composed of refined sawdust one can utilize this same effect by wrapping cold/frozen items in newspaper, or conversely, hot items. Not only will this allow you to transport the item and keep it at its preferred temperature longer, it will protect more fragile items such as jars. When my wife and I travel any distance, we will often wrap our food packages, place it in a cooler, and surround it all with ice bags.
- Human bedding. Go to any major city and in all likelihood a good portion of its homeless population lays on or under newspaper. Certainly the more sophisticated of us can make use of it, too, for the same purposes. Newspaper can be shredded and stuffed into sleeping bags and mattresses for an extra layer of warmth.
- Sound barrier. Newsprint is, relative to more common forms of insulation such as fiberglass, much denser. As such, contractors recommend it to those looking to muffle sound in homes. If one seeks to lower one’s noise footprint for operational security (OPSEC) purposes, newspaper can be shoved into spaces between windows or sliding doors, crevices through which sound can travel, between wall beams, etc. On structures which creak where two pieces of building material rub together, I’ve found that placing a few layers of newspaper between the offending parties, then refastening the joint provides for a better fit and dampens the noise in one shot.
As effective as newspaper is all by itself, here are three pointers for those intending to make use of it:
- Newspaper and tape go hand in hand. The handiest tape for any of its purposes is masking tape. It sticks well enough to the paper itself. Furthermore, when using newspaper there is often a need to adhere it to another surface, whether I’m using it under my kids’ paint pads or as a jar insulator, and masking tape will typically not harm such surfaces or leave residue. It can also be left with the newspaper through its transitions to other purposes, such as fire starting or composting. I recommend keeping a few rolls of painter’s masking tape on hand if you’re going to keep a pile of newspaper on hand.
- Some care must be taken when storing newspaper. Don’t store it near any source of flame or radiant heat. Don’t expose it to liquids. Even in safe, dry places it can become a haven for mice and insects if left in the open. I recommend using plastic storage bins for indoor storage, and a plastic barrel with removable top works well for outdoor storage.
- Depending on your use, you may have to break newspaper down into smaller pieces. For the most part I can perform most tasks simply by tearing it by hand. When I need to make it into finer strips a “guillotine” paper cutter (the type elementary schools use) works extremely well. In order to break it down into a fine pulp I use the “bucket method”: I simply fill a standard 5 gallon bucket halfway with paper and the rest of the way with water. Let this sit for a couple of days until the newspaper is thoroughly saturated and easily torn by hand. Then get a power drill with mixer (mortar or paint) attachment and blend to a fine pulp. Do this in an area and with clothes where splatter won’t matter. You can now use the newspaper in its semi-liquid form for purposes such as gardening or spread it out to dry for purposes that require dry cellulose material, such as some insulation applications.
Newspaper has literally hundreds of uses around the home. I have but touched on those of special interest to the prepper/homesteader community which I can personally attest to. May you find newspaper to be as helpful to your preparations as it has been to mine.
JWR Adds: Don’t neglect using fire retardant (soaked or spray-on), depending on the application. For example, whenever newspaper will be used as insulation in an application where people might be sleeping or periodically absent, then flame retardant is called for.