By Sam Martin
Take a minute to look around the room you’re in and notice how many things are made out of paper. There may be books, a few magazines, some printer paper, and perhaps a poster on the wall. Yet, if you consider that each person in the United States uses 749 pounds (340kg) of paper every year (adding up to a whopping 187 billion pounds (85 billion kg) per year for the entire population, by far the largest per capita consumption rate of paper for any country in the world), then you realize that paper comes in many more forms than meets the eye.
World consumption of paper has grown 400 percent in the last 40 years. Now nearly 4 billion trees or 35 percent of the total trees cut around the world are used in paper industries on every continent. Besides what you can see around you, paper comes in many forms from tissue paper to cardboard packaging to stereo speakers to electrical plugs to home insulation to the sole inserts in your tennis shoes. In short, paper is everywhere.
Where Does the Paper Come From?
So where does it come from? Most people can guess that trees are the staple of any paper product. But did you know that until the middle of the 19th century, the main ingredient of paper was cloth rags? And while trees have since become a vital component in the creation of paper, many manufacturers today are beginning to use recycled waste combined with tree pulp to decrease the number of trees that need to be cut down and keep up with the growing demand for paper. Also, many environmentalists who believe that the world’s forests are being cut down faster than they can grow are pointing to the continued success of wood-free paper made with other plants such as hemp and a similarly fibrous plant called kenaf.
The First Paper…
The first paper-like substance was invented by the Egyptians over 6,000 years ago. Papyrus, which is the root of our English word paper, was made by weaving reeds or other fibrous plants together and pounding them into a flat sheet. The Greeks and the Romans also used this technique, although some Ancient Greek paper makers were the first to create a kind of parchment paper made out of animal skins. Chances are, Aristotle, Socrates and other Greek philosophers originally wrote their books on the skins of dead cows.
But paper as we know it wasn’t made until 105 AD, when a Chinese court official named Ts’ai Lun mixed mulberry bark and hemp with water and scraps of cotton and linen cloth (i.e. rags). This concoction was mashed into a pulp and pressed into mats that were left in the sun to dry. Rags were the basis for paper for the next 1700 years.
As the Chinese culture flourished and expanded to the edges of the Asian continent, paper went along with it, first to Korea and Japan and then to the Arab world which included Egypt and Morocco. Yet, it wasn’t until 1009 AD that Papermaking reached Europe by way of Spain, where the first European paper mill was set up by Arabs in Xativa, near the Mediterranean port city of Valencia.
After that, the Italians and the French became notable paper makers and dominated the paper industry in Europe from 1250 to 1470 AD. After the invention of the moveable type printing press in 1453 by the German inventor Johannes Gutenberg and the subsequent boom in literacy rates in the 16th century, paper for books grew in demand. Paper mills began opening all over the European continent and eventually reached the new world where the first American paper mill opened in Philadelphia in 1690. That increase in demand and the upsurge in papermaking began to tax the raw materials used to make paper (which was still largely made with rags) and manufacturers began searching for alternatives. It wasn’t until 1843 that ground-wood (or pulp) harvested from trees became the papermakers material of choice.
The Modern Industry
Today, the world consumes about 300 million tons of paper each year. Most of that paper is made from virgin pulp, but recycled paper accounts for 38 percent of the world’s total fiber supply and non-wood fibers from plants like hemp or kenaf make up 7 percent. The U.S., which contains only 5 percent of the world’s population, uses 30 percent of all paper. In that country, the forest and paper products industry generates $200 billion dollars in sales every year, accounting for 7 percent of the total manufacturing output of the United States. About 28 percent of all wood cut in the U.S. is used for papermaking.
Having come a long way from using rags and mulberry bark, papermaking has become a sophisticated science. Once a tree is cut down, it goes to a mill where it is debarked and then chipped into tiny fragments by a series of whirling blades. These fragments are then “cooked” in a vat with water and several chemicals, including caustic soda and sodium sulfate, to make a gooey slurry known as pulp. In the final stages, additives such as starch, China clay, talc and calcium carbonate are added to the pulp to improve the strength and brightness of the paper. Then the pulp is bleached to a white color using water and chlorine before being pressed into rolls and dried.
The Environmental Impact
Unfortunately, the papermaking process is not a clean one. According to the U.S. Toxic Release Inventory report published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), pulp and paper mills are among the worst polluters to air, water and land of any industry in the country. The Worldwatch Institute offers similar statistics for the rest of the world. Each year millions of pounds of highly toxic chemicals such as toluene, methanol, chlorine dioxide, hydrochloric acid and formaldehyde are released into the air and water from papermaking plants around the world.
Papermaking also uses up vast quantities of trees. But trees are a renewable resource, which means that once one is cut down another can be planted in its place. In fact, much of the wood used by paper companies in the U.S. comes from privately owned tree farms, where forests are planted, groomed and thinned for harvest in 20 to 35 year cycles, depending on the tree species. Around the world, tree farms supply 16 percent of all wood used in the paper industry, while the bulk comes from second growth forests. Less than 9 percent of the wood used to make paper is harvested from old growth forests, which are impossible to replace because of their maturity.
Yet, while tree farms or plantations help feed the demand for wood, they can’t provide the plant and animal diversity found in natural forests. Plus, according to a 1996 report from the U.S. Forest Service, the rate of harvest for softwood trees in the southern United States outpaced growth for the first time since 1953.
Alternatives to Cutting Down Trees
For these reasons, there is a growing chorus of entrepreneurs, environmentalists and inventors who are coming up with ways to make paper without having to use as many chemicals or so many trees. Recycling is by far the most common way to help save a tree. According to the Worldwatch Institute, recycling efforts around the world recovered about 110 million tons, or 43 percent, of all paper used. About 60 percent of all paper in the United States was kept out of landfills in 2009 and in 2010, 77 percent of all papermakers in the U.S. substitute some recycled paper for virgin wood in the pulp-making stage. And 115 mills use only recycled waste as their primary source of raw material.
Others point to agricultural waste as a stand in for wood. Agri-pulp, as it’s called, is wheat, oat, barley and other crop stalks left over after harvesting. Combined with recycled paper and other fillers, some paper makers are finding that agri-pulp paper makes fine stationery.
Hemp is a wood substitute that has a rich history in the papermaking industry, from paper’s origins in China in the first century AD to the Declaration of Independence, which was written in the 18th century on hemp paper. Hemp is now used to make rope and clothes as well as paper. Unfortunately, it is illegal to grow hemp in the U.S. because it is a non-intoxicating variety of cannabis sativa, the same plant marijuana comes from. For that reason, hemp must be imported for use in the U.S.
Kenaf is also known as an excellent tree-substitute in making paper. This 4,000-year-old hibiscus plant — an annual, non-wood fiber plant related to okra and cotton — is native to central Africa and can grow up to 18 feet tall in a four -to-five month season. Like hemp, kenaf is naturally whiter than wood and can be bleached with hydrogen peroxide instead of chlorine.
One of the major reasons paper mills are hesitant to convert to using kenaf or hemp to make paper is because they are not set up to process anything except trees. Converting a paper mill to process these wood pulp alternatives would cost tens of millions of dollars and major coordination with their suppliers and customers.
Still — like the conversion of radio to television as the major entertainment source in the 1950s and 1960s — such a conversion from trees to non-wood source materials in the papermaking process can ultimately provide extraordinary economics for the manufacturers and the consumers. It’s simply a matter of the different groups within the industry agreeing on how to best make it happen. And it’s going to take consumers like you and me to start buying recycled products as well as alternative pulp.
What’s certain is that with so much of our daily lives dependent on the material, paper is here to stay. Even email and the Internet haven’t slowed this demand. And yet, as research advances and the environmental impact lessens, perhaps we’ll be able to live comfortably with paper for the next six thousand years.
Updated September 10, 2011 by Susan Colby
Did You Know…
- The first paper merchant in America was Benjamin Franklin, who helped to start 18 paper mills in Virginia and surrounding areas.
- Wood pulp is found in rayon material, laundry detergent, tires, and transmission belts.
- The trees used to make paper in the United States come mostly from softwood forests-mostly pine-in the South and West.
- In 1883 Philadelphia resident Charles Stillwell invented a machine to make brown paper bags so folks would have something to carry their groceries home in. Today more than 10 million paper bags are used annually in supermarkets throughout the country.
- In 2010, recycled paper averaged 334 pounds for every person in the U.S. Hemp was grown commercially in the United States until the 1950s.
- The single oldest living thing on Earth is a tree, a 4,700 year-old bristlecone pine tree in Nevada. It was growing when the Egyptians built the pyramids.
- There are 747 million acres of forest land in the United States.
- More than 2.3 billion tree seedlings are planted in the United States each year.