Earth Day Special: the Third Life of Paper

Paper laid the groundwork for modern thought and changed the course of civilisation. 

Coming from Ancient China to the West through the Silk Road, paper revolutionised how we communicate. With the spread of papermaking technologies came the dissemination of ideas. Affordable, convenient, and no doubt deeply exciting for its early adopters, paper quickly became the go-to medium for transporting information. This facilitated flourishing cultural exchange, creating a more globalised society. 

The benefits of paper are undeniable and long-reaching, from Encyclopaedias that teach us how the world works to the envelopes we can use to papercut younger siblings. But the subsequent industrialisation of paper production is rife with problems. Illegal foresting practices, alongside heavy use of water and chemicals, hold dire consequences for the environment.

Deforested Acres, photo be Esemelwe

These processes need to be transformed if we are committed to a more responsible future. Now this is not going to be one of those articles that preachy-preach.

We promise. Let us tell you all about the third life of paper.

The third life of paper sees new production methods in widespread use. In the ongoing quest for greater sustainability, alternative fibres have been explored, made from sources as varied as orange peel, hemp and seaweed. 

This is not going to be one of those articles that preachy-preach

I see myself as personally crusading for the betterment of the humble sheet of paper. You may officially consider yourself reading the work of a self-made expert. For I, who’s words you are absorbing (not off paper, I might add), recently made mushroom paper. This is a process by which mushrooms are pulverised, mixed with paper scraps and flattened onto a screen. They are then crushed using felt and dried over the course of a few days. Lengthy and labour-intensive, I can’t speak to the energy efficiency or environmental impact of mushroom paper. Not to mention the time – not everyone can forage mushrooms and spend hours whizzing them in a blender, only to forgo a garlicky Cream of mushroom soup in favour of papery pulp. While making our own paper can be a fun place to start, change needs to happen on a bigger scale. The most promising option seems to be kenaf.

The Humble Kenaf

Kenaf has become an increasingly popular alternative to pine trees in the paper industry. Originating from West Africa and harking from the mallow family, kenaf yields about three to five times more fibre than traditional pine. One acre of kenaf takes one year to mature, whereas pine takes twenty. Its lack of structural integrity (less lignin, the resin which binds the fibres in the core of the plant) means it is easily pulped, unlike other trees. Water, heat and chemical use is lower in the kenaf paper production process. 

The kenaf industry is largely undeveloped, making start-up costs higher and subsidies lower. Luckily, it’s rising in popularity, with companies like Apple, Sony, and Birkenstock already using kenaf paper for their catalogues and promotional materials. 

With kenaf becoming more mainstream and demands increasing, one thing we should be wary of is monoculture. As many permaculture fans may know, a lack of diversity in planting leads to heinous consequences such as a loss in soil fertility, habitat, and an increase in pollution. 

While many companies haven’t yet caught onto the joys of kenaf paper, major publishing houses such as Penguin Random House are making sustainability pledges. Promising to become carbon-neutral by 2030, and use paper sourced from sustainable forests endorsed by the Forest Stewardship Council. Hopefully, a step in the right direction to ensure paper’s longevity.

When electricity moved into our homes, many thought candles would cease to exist.

When electricity moved into our homes, many thought candles would cease to exist. Books, like candles, are tangible, warm, tactile. They are something to be shared and belong in the physical realm. This is something the blue glow of a screen cannot replicate. A book is printed and has many lives, but to share anything online is to use battery power which cannot be recovered. Paper is not algorithmically driven, nor does it scan our faces as we read. Big tech may try to dissuade people of paper’s value, however, the environmental repercussions of our phones and laptops are possibly just as harmful to our planet.

Books, magazines and print media ensure we continue to engage with our surroundings. Alternative production methods may mean the print publications we hold so dear can continue in a less harmful manner. Although the environmental ramifications of the paper industry are harmful to our planet; they are also the root of our era’s enlightenment. We’d like the future of communication to still lie with paper and print… and we can’t wait to see what exciting new form it takes.

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