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“Little has changed in paper making over the past 50 to 100 years, but a lot has changed in our natural world. Forests once abundant are now degraded or replaced with monoculture plantations—placing stress on our climate, species and disrupting the precipitation cycle. A lot has changed in our societies as well, with a loss in market tolerance for papers made of 800-year-old trees or biodiverse landscapes. To quote Thomas Edison: ‘To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.’ The future of paper is in our imagination. Paper and packaging that is designed for reuse, made from agricultural waste and old clothes, as we recover the world of forests we’ve lost.” —Josée Breton, communications director at environmental nonprofit Canopy

What is the future of paper? This is a question that has been asked for decades, going back to the 1975 Business Week article “The Office of the Future.” It was predicted that personal computers would boost productivity (true except for your mornings spent on social media), save money and help the environment (outside, of course, creating e-waste) by eventually eliminating paper from the workplace. This, of course, never developed, and instead, in 2016, global paper usage increased to 413 million metric tons, which is about 50 percent more consumption since 1980.

Paper is clearly an integral part of our daily lives. As designers, we use it in our printed works, sketchbooks and work documents. As citizens, we use it every time we eat out, shop, travel, read and everything else in between. But how much do we know about where our paper comes from and how it is made?

Like many graphic designers, I didn’t learn about paper as a material in school. I found out about paper weight, brightness, sheet size and coated versus matte in my first print design job out of college. Even then, I didn’t understand how paper was made, where it was sourced, and its impact on us and our planet. It took reading the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in 2002 for me to truly see the forest for the trees.

I learned that paper first started to be industrially manufactured from trees in the 1840s and has grown in production and consumption globally until present day. McDonough and Braungart describe trees in their Cradle to Cradle book as such an important resource in nature that it is “not a fitting resource to use in producing so humble and transient a substance as paper.” Scientists at Duke and Oregon State universities found, like McDonough and Braungart suggested, that trees are better left in the ground to “further mitigate the increases in atmospheric CO₂ that result from fossil fuel combustion and deforestation.” So, I wondered then: What was used to make paper before trees? And why did papermakers switch during the Industrial Revolution?

To answer these questions, I spoke with Quinn Morgan Ferris, the senior conservator for special collections at the University of Illinois Library at Urbana-Champaign. She told me that “the earliest papers were made from cotton and linen rags, which produced a strong, supple paper that aged well—hence the number of incunabula and other early printed books that have survived in pristine condition. Before wood pulp became the prominent source, there were arguments for using other readily available materials for industrialized papermaking, such as straw. Matthias Koops, a British papermaker, authored a historical survey on alternate materials and printed it on a golden paper made of straw. That wood-pulp paper won out as the preferred raw material was likely a result of the abundance and economy of trees at the time.”

Fast forward from thousands of years ago in China, where paper was invented, to today, where we now recognize the immediate need to end natural-forest degradation and deforestation to combat climate change. A better step forward for the paper industry would indeed be going back to its roots.

Neenah Cotton Papers are made from cotton linters, a byproduct of the cotton industry that is recognized as recovered fiber by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Currently, in the global market, around 13 million metric tons of pulp come from (mostly agricultural) alternatives to wood. The marketplace offers papers made from agricultural products like sugarcane bagasse, bamboo, banana leaf, coffee husks, eucalyptus, hemp, kenaf (like the jute plant) and wheat straw. While the use of fibers like coffee, banana leaf and sugarcane bagasse might make sense to a paper company in South America, in the United States, to minimize greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, wheat straw from the country’s heartland is a more strategic and sustainable investment. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the US wheat-planted area for 2018 was estimated at 47.8 million acres. Turning the “waste” straw into pulp—instead of plowing it into the ground, letting it decompose, burning it or selling it for such uses as animal bedding—can open up a new revenue stream for US farmers while helping to meet the country’s paper needs.

Seeing this potential, Kimberly-Clark Professional launched a line of paper towel and bathroom tissue products in 2015 that are made with 20 percent plant-based fiber, such as wheat straw and bamboo. Kimberly-Clark is not alone in this venture. Columbia Pulp is in the process of building a pulp mill on 449 acres in Columbia County, Washington, which the company describes as being “one of the densest wheat farming regions in North America.” By 2019, Columbia Pulp hopes to begin the mill’s operation, helping to increase the overall production of wheat-straw paper products and, at the same time, using “less chemicals, energy and water than conventional pulping.”

Kimberly-Clark demonstrated that wheat straw has a smaller environmental footprint than tree fiber in a 2018 life-cycle analysis (LCA) externally reviewed by a panel of experts from the World Wildlife Fund, Canopy and sustainability consulting firm Quantis. The LCA does point out that the use of pesticides and fertilizers is a concern associated with wheat straw. However, farming studies in the Midwest have found ways to reduce or eliminate the need for fertilizers on fields by growing cover crops, like rye, in the winter to add nitrogen to the soil for spring. Utilizing this strategy could make wheat straw and other agricultural fibers an even better environmentally friendly alternative to trees for paper and paper products.

On top of agri-fiber waste, old clothing is another possible solution for the future of paper. This idea is not a new one. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, spent cotton rags and clothing were picked up by rag collectors to turn into paper. Fast forward to today, where the Environmental Protection Agency reports that the average US citizen throws away 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles annually. The Council for Textile Recycling projects that in 2019, the United States will generate 35.4 billion pounds of post-consumer textile waste. It makes sense, then, that the paper industry could capture the textiles headed to our landfills to satisfy our growing paper needs. And because cotton is a very resource-intensive crop in regards to water, pesticides and fertilizers, the reuse of post-consumer textiles for paper is better than increasing the production of cotton to produce virgin-fiber papers.

The cover (left) and an interior spread (middle) from the Fall 2013 issue of Corporate Knights magazine, which was printed on paper made from 60 percent wheat straw. Margaret Atwood worked with environmental group Canopy and publisher McClelland & Stewart to print a limited special edition of her 2011 book In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (right) on paper made from straw and recycled content.

Scott Boylston, a sustainable designer and an educator at the Savannah College of Art and Design, looks at the future of paper through the lens of variety. He told me that the future of paper is “a diversity of solutions,” which he describes as “the best solution overall.”

Indeed, this is correct. Similar to global energy production, we need a portfolio of resources to meet our future paper needs. We also need to learn about and explore paper ourselves. (Know your audience and know your material!) I learned the art of making paper by hand in 2012 when I started the agricultural fiber lab Fresh Press at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I teach and research. And for years prior to 2012, I evangelized agricultural fibers as a more environmentally friendly alternative to tree fibers as I lectured about sustainable design through my nonprofit, Re-nourish. The feedback was always: “We agree with you, but where can we find these papers?”

When I looked online and called contacts at paper companies, I also found these papers were few and far between. So, I decided to start making them myself, and over the past six years have made, studied and tested different agricultural fibers—corn, soy, rye, tomato, prairie grasses and more—in engineering labs, hoping to find viable fibers other than only wheat straw. In this same time frame, more alternative and sustainable paper companies have come online to increase the options for the graphic design community (see sidebar).

I’ve learned through this switch from designer using paper to designer making paper that our natural resources are valuable, and, therefore, agricultural fibers are definitely part of the future of paper. However, they are not here to stay—yet. The design community must embrace them in its print projects to increase market share and lower the cost of the specialty papers currently available.

In the meantime, as we plan and await a paper revolution—or if your client or studio isn’t open to agri-fiber yet—we can choose 100-percent recycled or post-consumer tree-fiber paper. It is a good alternative to virgin-fiber tree paper as it uses less energy and water to manufacture and produces less waste and greenhouse gas emissions. Good isn’t great, but good is better. You can also decide to cut back on your paper use altogether. The 1970s mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle” started with reduce for a reason. Reducing creates less waste and has less negative impacts on the planet.

Paper must turn back to its roots so we can continue to design and print in harmony with nature. You can be a part of this transition by learning more about agri-fiber papers and choosing them in your next project. Onward! ca

Eric Benson is an associate professor and chair of the graphic design program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He explores design through the lenses of utopias and dystopias, where each can provide methods for creating a better future. His research and teaching at Illinois was fueled by his sustainable design 501(c)(3) nonprofit Re-nourish (re-nourish.org), which laid the foundation to create the Fresh Press Agri-Fiber Paper Lab. Fresh Press explores the potential of papermaking to be zero waste, environmentally sustainable and a catalyst for a thriving local economy.


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