A simple piece of paper shaped the world

One of the products that revolutionized the world was paper. Communication was transformed from painting on cave walls to writing on paper surfaces.

Papyrus, an aquatic plant, was processed into material on which to write or paint around 3,000 B.C. in Egypt. Other products included sails, baskets and ropes. The word “paper” stems from papyrus, but papyrus is not a true paper.

From the second century B.C., there is evidence of primitive paper in China. Around 105 A.D., more refined paper was introduced. Presumably a mixture of mulberry bark, hemp and rags were mixed with water, mashed into pulp, pressed out and dried.

The first paper mill in America was established in Pennsylvania in 1690. Cotton rags, frequently imported from Europe, were manufactured into paper. Improved printing presses and enthusiasm for books increased the demand. Eventually, wood, which was abundant and economical, became the main paper source. By 1880, America produced the most paper goods.

In wood papermaking, cellulose fibers from softwood and hardwood trees are converted into pulp. In our country, 85 percent of wood pulp is derived from pine, fir, spruce, hemlock and larch. These softwood coniferous trees have longer cellulose fibers that produce stronger paper.

Yet, the demand for cotton rag paper is ongoing due to its durability. It is desirable for stationery or special paper and may be combined with materials like linen and synthetics. U.S. paper currency is 75 percent cotton, 25 percent linen and survives a wash cycle.

Acid-free archival paper, often from cotton, is extra permanent and museum grade. In 1990, the U.S. passed the Permanent Paper Law for the use of acid-free paper to preserve federal records, books and significant publications.

Still, the main source of paper comes from trees. Therefore, the environmental impact of deforestation is disturbing since we rely on many benefits from trees. To name a few, trees supply lumber, shelter animals, purify air and provide medicine. Chemotherapy drugs are derived from yew species.

The conservation of trees is intensified by using alternative sources, such as leaves, plant stalks like hemp and sugarcane, excrement from herbivores like cows, and processed leather waste. Some leftovers from plants, including olive stones, orange peels and walnut shells, can be crushed into paper.

As for rice paper, it is a misnomer for some paper products from East Asia. For example, mulberry tree paper, sometimes used to wrap rice bundles, is referred to as rice paper. Also, paper fabricated from the straw of the rice plant is frequently identified as rice paper.

A unique alternative, but not from plants, is stone paper. Made mostly with calcium carbonate found in rocks, it is oil- and tear-resistant, waterproof and biodegradable. Besides stationery, other products include wallpaper and playing cards.

Experts are optimistic that with alternative paper sources, recycling, digital paperless correspondence and forest management, papermaking will not impose a negative impact on our planet.