How Long Have We Used Paper?
Paper has been with us for quite some time. From the time of ancient China when papyrus, parchment and other materials were used to 11th century European, Middle Eastern and African water-powered paper mills.
But it wasn’t until the 1830’s that wood pulp became an important medium in paper making, when more sophisticated techniques for processing wood pulp were developed by Friedrich Keller and Charles Fenerty.
Where Does Our Paper Come From?
In the U.S., the wood used for commercial paper-making comes from what are called “managed timberlands.” Fast-growing trees are planted and grown specifically for wood harvesting (building lumber, fuel and paper). Here, trees are an agricultural crop, and whenever trees are harvested, more are planted. There are a number of privately owned companies in the U.S. that manage these timberlands, with the biggest by far being Weyerhaeuser, with over 12 million forest acres. The southern United States also has the greatest concentration of these timberlands. However, old growth forests have been threatened by logging companies around the world for a variety of reasons. These ecosystems are home to many species of plant and animal life, which may not have anywhere else to grow. These forests also play an important role in sequestering greenhouse gases.
Why Go Tree Free?
The total consumption of paper in the United States has been steadily decreasing since the year 2006, according to Statistica. One reason might be the rise of the computer era, digital documents like electronic health records and cloud storage. Many consumers may also be concerned with the number of old growth forests (including rain forests) that are being cut down unscrupulously. (For more information, click here.) Most commercial papers are also bleached using bleach compounds, which results in the release of potentially toxic chemicals into the environment. As with many situations, we have come full circle. There now exist a wide range of plant-based alternatives to timber being used to produce paper, which remains a recyclable resource. Some manufacturers are responding to the demand by producing packaging that removes plastics, which is much less recyclable and is clogging landfills and polluting waterways. Below is a partial list of tree-free alternative materials:
- Banana leaf – made from banana waste. New Leaf makes a nice paper which is available at Office Depot.
- Cotton rag – not a new material, but cotton is a pesticide-heavy crop.
- Elephant poop – you read this correctly! I’ve come across very nice all-occasion cards that utilized this interesting byproduct.
- Hemp – once vilified in the U.S., hemp is making a comeback and is one of the most versatile plants on earth. Paper is just one of the many products that can be produced using hemp, which can be grown without pesticides.
- Straw – once popular in the US, it is now hard to find. However, actor Woody Harrelson of Step Forward Paper fame created a paper using 80% waste wheat straw. It is available at Staples.
- Lokta paper – one of our favorites, this tree-free paper is made by hand in the Himalayas using the bark of the Daphne (lokta) bush. This durable and beautiful paper is what we use to wrap our palm oil-free bar soaps. And they can be recycled or re-used in creative ways.
A Tree Free Future?
While consumer concerns over sustainability and global warming are no doubt driving the tree-free movement, we will never be completely tree-free. So how can we help to reduce paper waste and contribute to increased sustainability?
- Purchase unbleached and recycled paper goods. Items like toilet paper, paper towels and napkins are widely available.
- If possible, use cloth napkins and re-usable kitchen towels towels to reduce the amount of soiled paper going to landfills.
- Sign up for paperless billing.
- Enroll in patient portals to view lab results, etc.
- If you must print, make it two-sided printing; reduce the fonts, remove unnecessary graphics to conserve paper.
- Use a paper shredder and shred unnecessary documents for use in gift boxes, packing boxes, to add to compost piles, as garden mulch, etc.
If we exercise a little thought when making purchases and before discarding goods, we can contribute to greener, more sustainable world. Have you joined the tree-free movement?