Paper cutter: Wilkins mom goes to great lengths to make paperless household work

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Mary Beth Karchella-MacCumbee belongs to what she calls "the cloth community" and tries, as much as possible, to live a paperless life.

A skilled seamstress who whips fabric around a sewing machine like a magician doing sleight-of-hand tricks, the Wilkins mother of three turns out cloth diapers, panty liners and bags of all shapes and sizes for busy female executives, college students and youngsters bound for elementary classes.

She sews baby slings out of cotton and silk and even makes cloth menstrual pads, which she has shipped to customers as far away as Australia as part of her home business making "alternative cloth family products."

But surely there's got to be toilet paper, right? Not for this family. There's no paper towels, facial tissues or toilet paper. Instead, she sews cloth personal wipes out of hemp velour, cotton flannel, cotton velour or bamboo fleece.

"Bamboo is soft. There's nothing wrong with your bottom being treated to bamboo," she says.

Used personal wipes go into a waterproof bag and then are emptied into a diaper pail. From there they're washed and used again.

(Fortunately for guests, she keeps a roll of toilet paper on hand just in case they need to visit the lavatory.)

Some might think Ms. Karchella-MacCumbee to be a bit extreme. Instead, she sees herself as being friendly to the Earth, thrifty and practical at the same time.

Many modern households -- whether for reasons of efficiency or environmental concerns -- have been cutting down on paper use through online banking, e-mail communication, airline e-tickets and even online annual renewal of vehicle registrations.

In the richest countries, paper consumption fell 6 percent from 2000 to 2005, from 531 pounds to 502 pounds a person, according to The New York Times.

But it's not known how many households have gone as far as Ms. Karchella-MacCumbee's.

She's never far from a bolt of fabric or a cutting board. During the summer months, she takes her cutting board and cloth to the park and visits with other mothers while her children have a blast playing with 20 other kids.

One of her friends in Michigan sells crocheted cotton tampons and panty liners made of hemp, cotton and organic velour from an Internet Web site.

Ms. Karchella-MacCumbee uses her own products, too.

"I've gotten three years out of my first set of [menstrual] pads," she said, adding that she sells sets of pads for $9.75 and sets of panty liners for $7.50.

Occasionally, she makes an exception and uses paper products. In June, when her daughter Alexis graduated from Boyce Community Middle College High School in Monroeville, she hosted a graduation party at a Boyce Park pavilion.

"I bought paper products for this party because we had 60 people at an outside park pavilion. I didn't have time to sew linen table cloths and matching napkins."

But, by striving to live a paperless life, she said, "I have less garbage."

When the junk mail arrives, she throws it in a recycling bag and also reuses computer printer paper. Although her children often do homework assignments on the computer, she recycles the paper once the work is graded.

Getting other people to switch from paper to cloth has become a bit of a mission for her.

For her son Ian's first-grade class at Propel East Charter School in Turtle Creek, she made soft, eco-friendly waterproof green bean bags, a classroom bag for children that holds books and folders. She hopes it will reduce reliance on plastic bags.

"There's a lot of good things that you can change with one simple step," she says.

The bags, made of 100 percent cotton and lined with polyurethane, are washable.

As a child, Ms. Karchella-MacCumbee grew up close to the earth and often spent weekends at her paternal grandparents' Washington County farm in a tiny coal patch called Muse, where she picked black raspberries in July with her father, who was a broker for Advest. She also picked hickory nuts and wild asparagus and rode a pony and a horse, and her father caught turtles and turned them into turtle soup.

She continues some of that lifestyle today. She keeps a compost pail that holds vegetable and fruit peelings, grass clippings, leaves, egg shells, cardboard egg cartons and anything else that breaks down naturally. Some of that compost goes on a garden she maintains on an acre of ground in Penn Hills, where she grows lavender and blueberries.

After her children arrived, she simplified her life.

"I used to be a secretary for the Pittsburgh Board of Realtors. I retired my pantyhose and suits. I'd much rather work at home," she says. "While my kids are doing homework, I sew."

She started her own cloth business, E-a-poo's (, 412-607-9886), in 2002 after discovering that her youngest son, Ian, now 7, was allergic to the chemicals in disposable diapers. After looking at 10 styles of commercially made cloth diapers, she drafted her own pattern and began marketing diapers, as well as women's sanitary products, school gear and soaps.

"By using cloth diapers, I saved a little over $3,000, which paid for a year of private education at Christ Lutheran Church and School in Forest Hills," she says.

That's the practical and thrifty part of going paper-free.

"It's more family time and more personal time in my pocket and less shopping time."

Marylynne Pitz may be reached at 412-263-1648 or .


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