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Refining the Paper-Making Process

by David Vega June 14, 2018
ReadRefining the Paper-Making Process

Paper has been a key factor in communication and learning and can be traced back to 3000 BC. In those days, Egyptian craftsman cut the stems of the djet or tjufi plant (papyrus in Greek), a tall freshwater reed belonging to a group of plants known in Biblical references as bulrushes. The Egyptians cut the reed into thin strips, softened them in the muddy waters of the Nile, then layered them in right angles. They then pounded the mat into a thin sheet and left it out to dry in the sun. It was clearly a labor-intensive affair, and most likely won the respect of producers and consumers alike; for this reason, it was saved for very important records, fine art, and religious texts.

The Greeks and Romans, the pillars of classical Western thought, knew as much. 4th century BC writer Theophrastus used the word papuros to refer to the plant when used as food and bublos for the same plant when used for baskets, rope, or writing. The more specific term biblos (from which the words bibliography and Bible originate) refers to the plant’s inner bark. Unfortunately, this early material was subject to rot and molds and would crack if folded too much.

Ancient Egyptian papyrus. (Image by Bernadette Simpson)


Paper as we know it today actually comes from China. In the year 105 Han Emperor Ho-Ti’s chief eunuch, T’sai Lun, experimented with materials in a search to replace silk as a writing material. He refined a process of macerating mulberry and bamboo plants until each fiber was separated completely. The individual fibers were mixed with water in a large vat. A screen was then dipped into the vat and lifted, catching the fibers on its surface. When dried, this thin layer of intertwined fiber became what today we call paper. This eunuch’s creation was thin and smooth yet strong and flexible, and came to be known as T’sai Ko-Shi, meaning: “Distinguished T’sai’s Paper.” It would soon be used to spread Daoist and Confucian spiritual texts and make its way to Japan, Tibet, and Korea.

In 751, when the Tang Dynasty was at war with the Islamic world, Chinese paper makers were captured by the Arabs near Samarkand, and forced to share their knowledge of paper making. This Middle Eastern city would soon become a great center for paper production, and by 794, Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo would have their own paper operations. Finally, when the Moors from North Africa invaded Spain and Portugal they brought the knowledge of paper making with them. Paper making finally entered Europe in the 12th century.


In the last 500 years, paper has been made from a variety of plant fibers including cotton, barley and flax as well as from recycled materials such waste paper and even rags. A common sight on the streets of major European cities was the rag picker, a person who would collect cotton rags to sell to paper mills. Only after the growth of industrialization in the nineteenth century did virgin fiber from trees become the primary raw material for paper manufacturing. Today, a massive pulp-and-paper industry is structured around the use of wood fiber, pulling in billions of dollars a year.

Sad to say it, but today’s thin sheet has little in common with the ancient writing material of yore. Modern paper ranks among the most resource-intensive and highly polluting of all manufacturing industries (see also Cardboard). Paper producers (hardly highly-regarded craftsmen) seem to give little thought as to what impact production has on the environment.

A number of processes have bastardized the initial material so that in the end, less nature and more highly toxic man-made substances go in – and eventually – come out. A bevy of special agents – chlorine bleaching agents, optical brightening agents (OBAs), fluorescent brightening agents (FBAs) and fluorescent whitening agents (FWAs) make our paper whiter and brighter. As of now, the pulp and paper industry ranks fourth among industrial sectors in emissions of Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) chemicals to water, and third in such releases to air. The problems don’t stop here, of course. American consumers literally throw away 700 pounds of paper a year into landfills; according to the U.N. Environmental Program (UNEP), it has the potential to decompose and produce methane, a greenhouse gas with 21 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide.

In recent years we’ve seen a growing number of paper mills using recycled material, but even then, tremendous amounts of energy and chemicals are used to remove inks, whiten, and produce a usable material. Single species pine forests are replanted and over-managed, limiting ecosystems and the natural propagation of flora and fauna. This entire process, the result of economies of scale, is all in the name of efficiency and the almighty dollar (also printed on paper), but at what cost? And who’s to blame? You and me.


The construction of a modern pulp-and-paper mills requires an initial capital investments of up to $2 billion, roughly the same of a smaller sized nuclear power plant. Because machinery is designed to process certain types of fiber, it is difficult to shift the production practices toward alternative fibers. A number of other agricultural fibers and their byproducts could be used for making paper. These include the unused byproducts of wheat, barley, oat, rye, rice, sugarcane, red fescue, rye, bamboo, cotton, flax, hemp, hesperaloe, and kenaf. In the past, some of these fibers were commonly used for paper making, and still are used in other parts of the world today.

The U.S.D.A and the University of Arizona has identified kenaf and hesperaloe as particular candidates due to their lower energy costs, fast growth, and non-reliance on pesticides. Other researchers have focused on the advantages of using the by-products of harvesting that are often burned. This use would have two important advantages. First, the availability of alternative fibers could reduce the pressure to harvest trees for paper making. Second, alternative fibers may be grown or collected after harvesting food crops, thereby helping to decentralize the paper industry which has historically existed in forest areas.

Today, a number of conscious businesses leaders in the packaging, publishing, and printing sectors are answering the growing demand for responsibly-produced paper. Consumers can look for papers certified by some sort of the internationally-recognized organization dedicated to promoting the responsible management of the world’s forests (at this time, the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) remains the most recognized not-for-profit organization of its kind). Although these organizations don’t eradicate the entire problem of over consumption, their efforts are a healthy sign of increasing public concern.

A paper roll at the Union Bag & Paper Co. in Georgia. (Image by Margaret Bourke-White for LIFE magazine)

On a local scale, we find many small producers returning to the old art of traditional paper making: with a simple screen and a tray of unbleached, (recycled) pulp. Material made in this tradition is durable, flexible and extremely versatile, and can be used to produce books and binding, stationery, screens, lampshades, and wallpaper. If we as consumers have the willingness to chart the course of the industry, then perhaps we can guide it to a more useful end.

Find recycled paper goods in our Office Collection

The LIFE Magazine images found at Google Books.

Leading image by John Hubbard. 

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