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Finding a More Sustainable Paper Pulp

by Gage Mitchell | Sep 7, 2012 | Sustainability

Around 90% of the pulp used to make paper currently comes from trees. And these trees take about 10-20 years to grow big enough to be harvested. Luckily, organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council are helping to making this industry more sustainable as a whole, but we still have to face the fact that trees are really only somewhat renewable. So why can’t paper companies use some other source of fiber for their paper? Something that grows faster and doesn’t cut down forests maybe?

How about Cotton? It seems to be second most common paper fiber, it grows much faster, and happens to make some really touchy-feely, sexy paper. But is it more sustainable? Unfortunately not. Cotton is considered the world's 'dirtiest' crop because of the heavy use of insecticides in the growing process. In fact, they use an insecticide that could kill a man with one drop if absorbed through the skin (source 2 below). That's scary, and a great reason to buy more Organic cotton. But I digress.

So what else can we use? Good question, and luckily Eric Benson of Re-Nourish fame received some grants to find out the answer to just that question. Enter Fresh Press, an agri-fiber lab founded by Eric and hosted at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches. With the help of volunteer students Fresh Press is building an impressive paper-making laboratory where they experiment with various agricultural waste fibers to see what could be made into a commercially viable paper product. Brilliant! Take an abundant waste product and make it useful.

They currently have three paper lines, Double Cooked Soy Brown, Northwinds Switchgrass Blonde, and Unleashed Mutt – a blend of fiber sources (love the beer-themed names). Unfortunately, they don't have any of the paper for sale yet (I keep asking), but I'm crossing my fingers hoping they'll get something ready soon. You can, however, buy some t-shirts and posters through their Felt & Wire Shop store (typical designers : ).

Even with the progress being made, it will most likely be many years (or decades) until the big paper mills take up the cause. But the best way to get them on board is to be informed, vote with your dollars by specifying alternative fibers when possible, and support the actions of scrappy start-ups like Fresh Press. Until then, make sure you're using recycled and/or FSC Certified paper whenever possible. It's the best way to know future generations will actually know what a forest looks like.

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Further Reading/Sources:

• 1: Paper & Recycling: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paper_recycling

• 2: Cotton and the Environment, by the Organic Trade Association: http://www.ota.com/organic/environment/cotton_environment.html

Gage Mitchell is the Principal / Creative Director at Modern Species. For more posts from him, click here.

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The true artist is a man who believes absolutely in himself, because he is absolutely himself.- Oscar Wilde