Do you ever find yourself staring at objects, or turning an item in your hand, squinting at it and feeling some kind of bafflement as to how an object came to be what it is? If so, then this story might be one for you.
For years, the human race has relied on physical paper copies to transmit their stories, memories, facts, histories, messages and more across time and space. But what about the story of paper itself? Who’s telling that? Everybody knows paper is trees, but how does this happen?
Here is my account of the life of a piece of paper:
A tree’s body:
The story of paper must begin with the tree trunk. Each trunk has its own outer layer of bark to protect it from nasty little threats in the world: It is the tree’s armour, naturally formed to shield it from harmful forces like wind, rain, climbing children and grazing insects.
Hiding just inside the bark is thin Cambium, which holds the key to the cells which become the bark and inner wood:
Attribution due to Peter Linehan under Creative Commons License 2.0
Sapwood is a tree’s lifeblood; it flows through the parts of the tree’s body just as our own blood does. It ensures the tree’s nourishment and healthy existence.
And finally, the aptly named Heartwood is the innermost part of a tree’s trunk. It isn’t living but it’s the tree’s strength, stability and core.
Attribution due to Aleksi Steinberg under Creative Commons License 2.0
All this material is formed of fibres, tiny little friendly cellulose strands stuck together by way of a natural adhesive called lignin.
And this is where our part in the story of paper begins, as it is through our separating and rearranging these very same fibres that brings paper into existence
First of all, chop chop, the tree’s body gets cut down.
Attribution due to Beatrice Murch under Creative Commons License 2.0
The logs are then taken to a paper manufacturing company, where they’re bathed, soaked and cleaned before being transformed into good little chips of wood.
The little chips are arranged according to size and moved on for pulping.
And what is pulping I hear you ask?
During this stage, individual wood fibres within the chips are broken apart and separated: It is essentially a making soft of the previously tough and hard substance to produce a malleable, mushy and watery product.
Some other ingredients are also usually thrown in around this point, things like starch, China clay, talc and calcium carbonate which contribute to the strength and brightness of the young paper.
Moving on the mush
The created mush that we now have is pretty much 99% water at this point, somehow, this all needs to be squeezed out. First, the papermakers spray the stock onto a wire, which is actually a wide, long screen, not a wire.
The water drips out the bottom and meanwhile, the little fibres are caught on the top side of this wire where they start becoming friends and bond to form a very thin mat. This bed of fibres at the top of the wire is then squeezed for all it’s got between press rollers that take out yet more of its water.
The Final Steps:
Even after of all this squeezing and wrenching, the mushy stuff is still 60% water.
Let commence the dry end of the paper story: Huge metal cylinders are filled with steam and the stubbornly wet mat passes through these gigantic hot rollers.
This process of heating and drying the wet sheet gradually forces the fibres closer and closer together to transform the mush into the glossy magazines and A4 sheets of paper we see all around us. Voila!
Ok, wait this isn’t quite the end of the story.
The fledgling paper is made ready for the world:
The paper makers use a machine called the Calendar which is not a calendar. It refers to big, massive and heavy iron rollers that press the drying paper smooth, all uniform in thickness.
Sometimes, depending on our piece of paper’s function in the world, it is coated with a substance such as clay which makes it glossy and easy to print on.
And this is how a matted bed of tree fibres comes to serve us as paper in a countless number of ways in the human world.
I love paper and would never want to ban it from existence, I love writing on it, drawing, folding, making paper aeroplanes, you name it… But we should also be aware of some downsides that are a result of this story.
Pulp and paper mills are actually among the worst polluters to air, water and land and I don’t want to state the obvious, but it also uses up a vast quantity of trees.
Still, trees are renewable so that’s not the end of the world as some might have you believe: Most of the time tree farms operate by a cut one down, plant one new policy which is…good. What this policy doesn’t resolve is the natural diversity and population of an unharmed forest habitat where animals can live how they are used to and want to.
So, the point is, to be aware of other solutions and rally around ways to keep the stories of paper going but in the most ethical way possible. Recycling efforts help massively and so far count for recovering about 43% of all paper used. We should definitely support the paper mills that use only recycled waste as their primary source of raw material.
There are also alternative natural products that can actually stand in for wood, especially when combined with recycled paper: Wheat, oat, barley and left over crop stalks.
Maybe it’s time got more of the paper glory?
Sometimes it’s good just to know these things and get the word out. This is why companies like Whitepages are to be commended: With the growing number of people that would prefer to just find the correct online directory site and hit ‘search’ for the contact information they need rather than trail through a book too heavy for them to lift with one hand, Whitepages has recognized the declining need for default print copies of every phone directory.
Their solution is to operate an Opt-in delivery program, so if you REALLY want one, don’t worry, you can get one.
But Whitepage’s philosophy seems to be pretty much just right: It’s not about halting the paper story; it’s about managing it, and not creating thousands more unnecessary individual paper stories.
Amalia Dempsey is a dedicated fan of paper, interested in writing and the world. She supports White Pages, an online telephone directory and address finder, and their quest to ban unnecessary print copies of long directories.