Treeless Paper

Forest scene

A layered forest scene on paper.

Less than 150 years after trees were first commercially used to make paper, many seem to have forgotten that paper can be made out of anything else. The crisp, white sheets we feed into our printers and scratch our grocery lists onto generally comes from virgin pulp. In the U.S., much of that pulp comes from trees that have been harvested from tree farms, and while that helps a bit to lessen the burden on our decreasing old growth forests, the cyclical planting and harvesting of monoculture forests leaves little room for natural biodiversity of plant and animal life.

Paper tags on a wall.

Paper tags lined up.

Recycling is somewhat better, though the de-inking and bleaching process recycled paper must go through is still environmentally damaging. In addition, the resulting sludge of heavy metals from the inks often ends up in a landfill, or is incinerated, releasing toxic chemicals into the air.

Tree pulp may be the most common raw material these days, but a dizzying variety of fibers can actually be used to make paper: hemp, cotton, bagasse, and linen being some of the most common.

The crisp, white sheets we feed into our printers and scratch our grocery lists onto generally comes from virgin pulp. In the US, much of that pulp comes from trees that have been harvested from tree farms, and while that helps a bit to lessen the burden on our decreasing old growth forests, the cyclical planting and harvesting of monoculture forests leaves little room for natural biodiversity of plant and animal life.

The finest archival-quality papers are rarely made from tree pulp. They’re handmade in a small-batch process that reduces the impact on the environment, from fibers that are either sustainably harvested, or—better yet—which are actually byproducts of other industries.

If you really want something to last—a book, a piece of art, a journal—the paper it’s made of needs to be archival quality. Paper with a high acidity and lignin content (like most tree pulp paper) will turn yellow and become brittle over time. Librarian and chemist William Barrow first noticed this in the 1930′s, when books printed on the relatively new wood-pulp papers began to disintegrate in a way that their antique counterparts did not.

Tree bark peeling open.

Bark peeling off a tree.

“A German Bible from the 18th century—you can’t kill it,” said Helen Driscoll, dealer of fine papers and owner of Invitesite.com. “It’s hemp, and it’s handmade, so the paper doesn’t break down. It’s amazing.” Driscoll first became fascinated by quality paper herself through her work as a seller of rare and antiquarian books. In her search for the finest papers in the world, she’s found that the best way is often the oldest way: handmade papers made in small batches, out of fibers that aren’t trees. The papers may be more expensive than those mass-produced from tree pulp, but you get what you pay for. “It just depends upon whether someone wants something of real quality,” Driscoll said.

Small hand mills around the world still make paper the same way it’s been done for centuries. In Nepal, artisans have hand made paper since 600 AD to create gorgeous prayer books. Their fiber of choice comes from the bark of the lokta bush, which can be sustainably harvested, since it grows back after it’s been harvested. The inner bark is chopped up and cooked in ash, and no chemicals are used in the process. Lokta fibers are long and extremely strong, with a structure that’s particularly receptive to colorful natural dyes. The resulting paper can last for centuries.

In India, handmade paper mills use cotton rag waste from the garment industry—not only does this process save eucalyptus and bamboo forests from being cut down, it also helps solve a very big problem of waste that would go straight to a landfill. Because the papermaking process requires so much water, mills are often located in the countryside, thus creating jobs and helping to revitalize India’s rural areas. Cotton paper is durable and quite strong (US paper currency, of course, is made of a cotton-linen blend paper).

Japanese washi paper is maybe among the most well-known artisan papers. Papermaking was traditionally the winter work for farmers, today washi is handmade in studios year round. Washi can be made from a variety of fibers, such as wheat or rice, though it’s most notably made from kozo or mulberry which have long, strong fibers perfect for beautiful Japanese screens, lanterns, and of course fine papers used for calligraphy.

Alternative fiber paper, always a part of the art market, is starting to grow in the commercial market. In addition to the small hand mills around the world, some larger companies are starting to embrace alternative fibers, often using byproducts of the agricultural industry as their raw materials.

A sketch drawn onto recycled paper. (Image by Tamsin Johnson)

Sketching out designs on recycled paper. (Image by Tamsin Johnson)

Bagasse is becoming one of the most popular tree pulp alternatives in the industry. A byproduct of sugarcane production, bagasse requires fewer chemicals for processing, and produces a very high strength paper. Thanks to our global sweet tooth, bagasse is highly available, as well. These days, its main use is in the biofuel industry, though the paper industry is starting to increase demand.

Cotton, linen and hemp—once staples of the paper industry—are starting to make a comeback in commercial paper manufacturing, too. US companies like Neenah are using recycled cotton rags to create high-quality archival papers that require little bleaching. Helen Driscoll favors hemp as one of the best quality papers. After all, it’s what the Gutenberg Bible is printed on, and that’s still in amazing condition more than 600 years later.

Nearly any vegetable fiber can be made into paper, and some companies are finding ways to reuse all sorts of agricultural byproduct. Prairie Paper is a Canadian company that uses the straw left over from wheat harvest to make their paper. TNF Ecopapers uses byproduct from the banana and coffee industries in Central America, and PooPooPaper even makes its products from the fibers recovered from the dung of elephants, donkeys, horses and pandas.

Maybe not every grocery list needs to be scrawled on handmade, archival-quality paper. But: “If you’re making an object of value and you want that object to last for 500 years, you’re just going to be a bit different about how you approach your materials,” said Driscoll. “If you’re an artist and you’re going to do collage work and cut up magazines and make art out of them, that art probably has a life of abut 25 years before it internally disintegrates.” The hemp pages of the Gutenberg Bible, on the other hand, still have plenty of years left in them.

The message? Look to the methods and materials of the past if you want a paper that will preserve your art well into the future.

FURTHER READING Old and Sold – Non-woody Fibrous Materials 

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