The tragedy and remedy of paper

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Caris Avendaño Cruz is a Filipina writer and author of MARIKIT WEARS THE MAP TO THE ENGKANTOS, a Middle Grade fantasy book that features an all-Filipino cast and local folklore, debuting in FSG BYR Macmillan, Fall 2022.

One of man’s most important inventions is a flimsy sheet of wood pulp that became the heart of human’s first long-distance communication, among its many other uses. Of course, there have been various writing surfaces used beforehand—tortoise shells, wood, parchments, anything where the ink drips and stays like a warning sign for others to read. But there was none as versatile and as lightweight as paper, which, surprisingly, wasn’t invented until 100 AD.

In the Han Dynasty, a eunuch rolled the sleeves of his silk robe and went to work by mashing finely-chopped pulp from the mulberry tree, hemp rags, and water. Cai Lun was the first to flatten the material and dry it out into the sun, perhaps taking his inspiration from bark cloth, a common fabric made from the same mulberry tree. The first paper was unrolled and became a big success, instantly inspiring monks to pen their prayers and sharing it with the community.

The novelty of paper reached the other ends of the world slowly, but not without striking similarities from other inventions. The Aztec codex, for example, was created from the fibers of the agave plant. The Greeks, who baptized the invention as we now know it, created their version from the papyrus plant. All used the same technique: dense plant fibers are crushed, soaked in water, and are placed in a screen mesh to dry in the thinnest possible way, creating a flimsy screen that could be written on, folded, rolled, or made into a kite. Plain paper may look boring that some added colors, infused dried flowers, bleached and splashed-on with fragrant oils to create a touch of whimsy.

Waste not want not

Nothing beats the dangers of plastic waste, but here’s a catch: rotting paper emits methane, which is more hazardous than the regular CO2

Since its inception, paper has been used widely all around the world: for jotting notes, accounting ledgers, reporting news, wrapping gifts, labeling products, and so much more. It ceased to be precious; this commodity has been so painfully common that about 85 million tons of it are discarded annually. That’s in the US alone. Each individual throws out 680 pounds of paper per year, and this doesn’t include the amount discarded by households.

The waste itself is bad news; paper makes up 29% of the overall municipal solid waste as gathered by the EPA. This includes paper bags, product packaging, notebooks and books, newspapers, and newsletter subscriptions. But before the waste is the production, involving 14% of the global wood harvest. Trees, which could have transformed unwanted carbon residues into clean air, are cut down to serve as pulp fibers for cartons and paper plates. Unfortunately, these single-use items end up in the landfill.

The University of Southern Indiana notes that for every ton of recycled paper, one can save 17 trees from being cut, 380 gallons of oil, 7000 gallons of water and three cubic yards of landfill space. In making a single piece of pure white A4 paper, five liters of water are used. A weekend edition of the New York Times requires harvesting the pulp of 75,000 trees, which in turn could have provided clean oxygen for 225,000 individuals.

75,000 trees for a weekend edition of one newspaper; imagine how many trees are cut for the daily subscriptions, with the many newspapers across the world

It is no secret that manufacturing paper itself harms the environment. Pulp and paper production is the third-largest contributor to air, water, and soil pollution, thanks to the chlorine-based chemicals used to bleach virgin pulp. The cycle doesn’t end in the make; as paper biodegrades, it releases methane gas, which is ten times more toxic than the regular CO2.

There are dangers in mass-producing paper, but surprisingly, this material is the least evil of all common consumer commodities. According to EPA, paper is one of the popularly used composting materials (at 49%) and ranks high on the recycling race (67%). All hope is not lost.

The truth about paper

Paper is sustainable. Many institutions, such as the Forest Stewardship Council, encourage sustainable environment management practices to industries, ensuring that trees are harvested and replaced accordingly. Responsible paper production stirs opportunities for both forest owners and companies in gaining incentives and acquiring certifications that make their products more appealing to consumers. Paper, compared to plastic, also decomposes better. According to BBC, paper can deteriorate in two to six weeks, compared to thousands of years when it comes to plastic.

One way of maximizing paper products is through recycling. Over the years, consumers are taught that virgin pulp paper is better than recycled paper. There is truth behind this: virgin fibers are cleaner and much more hygienic, and its products make use of less energy, making it cheaper. But recycled paper holds many promises through innovative metamorphoses. Among them, Nintendo’s Labo.

Living the Labo

Japanese game company Nintendo, makers of the renowned Super Mario, have released Labo, a set of do-it-yourself kits made to accompany the portable Nintendo Switch. Kids and kids-at-heart can build their consoles from recycled cardboard, brought to life with their controllers and can interact with the game itself. Other than this teaches anyone the basics of engineering, Labo also makes smart use of recycled paper.

Introducing the Nintendo Labo: DIY kits made from recycled paper, created as a companion to the portable game console, Nintendo Switch.
Image from Nintendo

Each cardboard Toy-Con, as these kits are called, can be assembled by hand, with no assistance of scissors or glue. The Japanese, it must be noted, have contributed valuable lessons on paper, by the way of origami, from past to present. Kits vary from remote-controlled cars, a toy piano complete with a full octave of carton keys, a robot kit, and a virtual reality set that comes enclosed with free software updates. This invention won Nintendo many prizes, including the 15th British Academy Games Awards and the New York Game Awards.

Paper in 3D Printing

Most 3D printers use long tubes of plastic filament to render the images, but then-Design Academy Eindhoven student Beer Holthuis found something more sustainable–recycled paper pulp. Holthuis, for his graduation project, created the Paper Pulp Printer, experimenting with natural bindings to create a custom-made machine to print the mixture of water and pulp. The result: 3D printed products that seem, at a distance, like rope pieces wound up together. The fibers on the pulp make strong renders, but Holthuis added varnish finishes to make the objects last longer.

In this project, Holthuis was able to produce a series of lamps and containers, all made out of paper. This technique, according to him, is maybe suitable for large printing projects, such as furniture.

Paper as home appliances

Surprisingly, paper can be used in many unexpected ways. Maxime Louis-Courcier, for one, proposed a paper-and-clay inspired design for non-electric household appliances. One of them, the woven air-conditioner, is a decorative mat of white paper rolls beautifully decked with blue slats that add a visual aesthetic to any wall. But the secret behind its cooling function is in its design; a feature called Phase Change Materials—bio-based fatty acids—absorb heat as they melt at a specific temperature. The object absorbed the humidity in the air while creating a protective barrier against the heat coming through the walls.

Louis-Courcier dubbed his work as a “woven conditioner” that can be rolled and placed in various parts of the home.
Image from Maxime Louis-Courcier

When the desired Phase Change temperature is reached, the PCM melts and turns opaque, making the back of the tube visible with the blue pattern. As the temperature drops, the PCM solidifies back, ready to absorb the heat once more.

Paper and cardboard waste continues to be an issue. It is foreseen that by 2020, paper business will produce 500 million tonnes yearly, hitting #3 of the biggest air polluters in the world. However, various concepts of paper recycling is on the horizon. China and India, among the world’s biggest paper producers, now make use of recovered paper, making up a chunk of 35% in their demands. Europe has collected 57 million tons of paper and many parts of the world are seeing this resource as a producer of energy.

Recycled gaming kits, 3D printer inks and a non-electric appliance made of paper—who would think it possible? With these ingenious ideas, paper, among the earth’s most sustainable resources, will be put to good use. Other than recycling, it is high time for consumers to use the power of their wallets and make better, earth-saving options.