Friday, August 12, 2016

Paper Trail

My Canon printer just ran out of paper. I’ll have to stop by Staples and pick up another ream. It won’t be the last.

In the first flush of widespread personal computing in the 1980s the coming “paperless society” was an oft-repeated prediction. By the mid-90s this already was a joke. Although electronic record storage and online businesses were growing explosively, the need (or at least the desire) for paper back-up copies persisted. Paper production and use expanded, and not by a small amount. In addition to business and government documents, home printers and fax machines spewed out tons of printed matter.

In 2016, however, it seems we finally are three or four years beyond peak paper, at least in the developed economies. The paperless society still is nowhere in sight, but one with less paper has arrived. The largest fall-off in sales is in newsprint as newspapers continue to move online. Book publishing, too, is diminishing. This is not just because of electronic publishing, though that is a big factor; book sales in total (paper and ebooks combined) are down. While paper sales are off, however, they aren’t off by much. Some parts of the market are expanding: notably packaging. As people increasingly buy online for home delivery, cardboard box production is soaring. Nonetheless, there is an overall slow drift downward in paper sales.

Paper by definition consists of small cellulose fibers distributed randomly – as opposed to cloth in which fibers are neither small nor random. The fibers are broken up into tiny fragments and mixed with water which is then sifted through a screen on which the paper forms. We tend to think of paper as made from trees, and nowadays it mostly is, but this was uncommon until the late 19th century when new industrial processes made it cheap. The removal of lignin from wood pulp was the problem; it could be (and was) done even in the earliest days of papermaking, but it was troublesome. Rags and hemp were the most common source of cellulose for paper before 1850. To this day very high quality paper is cotton rag. Accordingly, newspapers from 200 years ago are generally in much better shape than ones from 50 years ago because the latter used less durable wood pulp paper. 

Traditionally, the credit for inventing paper goes to Cai Lun, an official in the Han court who announced his discovery to the emperor in 105 CE. We now know this isn’t quite true; archaeologists have found paper in China dated much earlier than 105. However, it is likely Cai Lun had something to do with promoting and expanding its use. After all, Edison didn’t invent the light bulb; he just made one that was commercially viable. Who invented petroleum refining? Not Rockefeller, but we remember his name. Who invented the automobile? Not Henry Ford by a long shot. Bill Gates didn’t invent DOS. You get the idea. Popularizers rather than inventors get the notoriety, and perhaps that is as it should be. Paper production didn’t begin in the West until more than 1000 years later when the demands of printing finally overwhelmed the supply of traditional vellum and papyrus.

Until the 1970s, the acid method of wood pulp paper production was dominant; it also was smelly and highly polluting. Alkaline methods currently in use are not. Paper companies such as Weyerhaeuser farm trees on their own tracts, replanting as they cut. Using or even burning paper, like other wood products, from farmed trees does not release net carbon since the replanted trees soak it back up again. Paper is biodegradable. In short, compared to the alternatives, paper with or without recycling isn’t so bad.

This removes some of the objections to a 1960s fad that paper manufacturers might hope to revive to brighten up fading sales: paper clothing. Dresses that cost only a few cents each to make were sold in stores in the 60s for $1 each. (Vintage examples now sell for hundreds to collectors.) They were intended for a single use – maybe two if the wearer managed to keep clean. They could not survive washing. There were paper men’s fashions, too, but they didn’t sell very well. Concerns about the “disposable society” doomed the fad with a negative press, and by 1970 they were history. But in truth, given current technology, it is not at all clear that reusing cloth by washing it is any more energy-efficient or resource-preserving than replacing a paper outfit with a new one.

There are limitations to paper wearables due to sturdiness issues, of course, as there were 50 years ago. The go-go boots, for example, will have to stay vinyl.

Frank might be overdoing the paper thing


  1. I remember the paper dresses, but not the fashions for men. I used to watch Project Runway for a while and still might depending on their contestants. Sometimes they'll have a challenge where they have to make garments out of unconventional items. Those are always a fun challenge. Masking tape seems to be a more recent fad that some creative minds do well with.

    I noticed more and more companies want you to go paperless from utilities to brokers to whomever. It makes it seem like a good thing, but really I think it's just way for them to lower their overhead. Sometimes I don't mind, but if you have to print up a statement on your own computer using your own paper and ink are we really saving that much. I think they just want to shift the expense to the consumer.

    1. Yes that is exactly the companies' motives -- and governments for that matter which want taxes filed electronically. My electric company just included in its last bill to me another "offer" to just take the money out of my bank account "for your convenience" rather than put me to the trouble of writing a check. The day will come when I won't be given a choice, of course, but for now I'll write the check.

      The paper men's clothing (including business suits) went nowhere. They were just novelty items. Women's dresses actually sold pretty well for a few years. Back around 1900 there was a popular paper clothing item for men though: shirt collars. Disposable cardboard collars were a fashion for decades.