The History of Paper

The early Egyptians wrote on papyrus, a woody reed that grew in their marshlands. The reeds were pounded into long flat sheets that were rolled and read as scrolls, as early as 2700 BC. Papyrus, however, is not considered a true paper by the powers-that-be, a true paper being a composite of multiple materials.

Ts’ai Lun, of China, announced to the emperor of China, in 105 AD, that he had invented (true) paper, using mulberry and other barks, fish nets, hemp, and rags. Although silk had been used as early as 300-400 BC as a writing medium (even for making books), by 300 BC, paper was universally accepted as a substitute for bamboo, wood, and silk as a writing medium in China.

From China, papermaking spread to Japan (610 AD), then Baghdad (793 AD), then Egypt (900 AD), then across the Mediterranean into Western Europe, with its first appearance in Spain in 950 AD. The first mention of a papermaking factory is of the Fabriano, Italy, paper mill in 1276 AD. This mill is still in operation--a noteworthy event in the paper history timeline.

Printing on paper, as opposed to scribing, first appears with the production of Johann Gutenberg’s Bible in Germany in 1450-1455 AD. England’s first printed-on-paper book appeared in 1468 AD.
And the rest is history.

The Uses of Paper

Paper’s uses appear to be limited only by our imagination. They vary from the making of children’s toys and other craft items to fine art sculpture to practical use in office, dining room, and bathroom to the carriers of historic and nation-making documents or an individual’s most private and personal thoughts to the money we use every day as our primary medium of exchange.

• From the making of a simple paper airplane to the formal art of Origami, the wonder of paper folding has intrigued and amazed the mind of man for centuries.

• The simple recording of a person’s private thoughts in a diary or journal, or more public thoughts in published articles, has provided inspiration and insight to readers time and time again, often helping to make an imposing and overwhelming world seem more personally manageable.

• Recorded notes of inquisitive minds have provided us with fresh views of the universe and our position in it (a round earth orbiting the sun, the Theory of Relativity); with sketches of inventions that have altered the way we respond to the world (autos, airplanes, and computers); and with catalysts for economic, social, and political revolutions and reforms (industrial factories, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights).

• The printing of paper money has become a national, governmental pastime in our current economic crisis. Not necessarily a healthy one, given the lack of gold in our nation’s coffers to back it up. Still, that paper money is the reason we go to work every day and the means by which we envision ourselves achieving our dreams and providing for the needs of our families, whether we are making money online or through a brick-and-mortar business.

The use of paper has grown so extensive, in fact, that demand for it is now having a serious impact on the ability of our earthly environment to sustain itself—and therefore us as a species.

The Environmental Impact of Paper

According to The State of the Paper Industry, a report published (on-line) by the Environmental Paper Network:
• The average American consumes more than 700 pounds of paper a year.
• Paper accounts for 25% of landfill waste (33% of municipal landfill waste).
• The paper industry is the 4th largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions among United States manufacturing industries, and contributes 9% of the manufacturing sector's carbon emissions.
• Forests store 50% of the world's terrestrial carbon. (They are vital "carbon sinks" that trap pollution that would otherwise contribute further to global warming.)
• Half the world's forests have already been cleared or burned, and 80% of what's left has been seriously degraded.
• 42% of the industrial wood harvest is used to make paper.

What all this really means is that without forests our earth has no way to make the particular balance of chemicals that comprise the air that we breathe. Without that air, we don’t breathe. When we don’t breathe for long enough, we die. If that happens not just to us as individuals, but us as a species, we die as a species. The human species (that’s us!) is getting dangerously close to being added to the “Endangered Species” list. Not closer than we know, but closer than we want to admit. And 42% of those forests are currently used to supply us with the flow of paper upon which we place such a great demand.

The good news is our forestry industry is beginning to realize they themselves will also soon be an extinct species, if they fail to feed the golden goose that feeds them. They are beginning to write and implement policies requiring themselves to plant new trees in the areas they are clear-cutting, where they used to just leave the land barren, vulnerable to devastation from natural forces, and unable to refurbish itself for hundreds of years, if ever.

The Future of Paper

There is speculation as to whether we are on our way to becoming a “paperless society.” The evidence used to support this notion is the proliferation of electronic technology like computers, smartphones, and kinderbooks. It is supposed that if the same information is on a screen, it will be more likely to be read than if it is on paper.

Greater evidence for the notion of a paperless society may rest in the increasing lack of literacy in our country. If you have a population that cannot read, you have considerably less need for paper. Or for computers, smartphones, or kinderbooks, for that matter.

I do see an alarmingly increasing lack of quality books being published today. And my local library has a paucity of books altogether. Although, their mystery section is flourishing--with paperbacks written by the hundreds, clearly using a single software program with a single template and a fill-in-the-blanks-with-your-favorite-hobby format. So, the question then arises, for me: “Would a paperless world be any more loss than one in which paper is so abused and misused?”

Our government and banking industries are certainly pushing for a paperless society, preferring that we use the plastic with which they can more easily control and track our spending and our interest rates, all to their greater benefit and our greater loss.

As for my view, I can’t imagine living in a paperless society with any joy at all. How would I stretch my imagination without other people’s stories? How would I feast my eyes on the artful products of other’s imaginations? How would I learn how other people think, and that not everyone thinks alike–or was ever intended to do so? How would I pass on what I have learned to a generation not yet born, so they might not make the same mistakes, or so they might not miss the same joys?

Printed paper books have been my best friends all my life. I love the touch of them, the smell of them, the look of them, the variety of them, the way the pages turn and the sounds they make when they do. I love the way they allow me to feel all the feelings there are and to think beyond what I thought I could think.

What a dank and darkened future it would be without paper.

Author's Bio: 

This article has been brought to you by Judy M, a writer and artist interested in healing the lives of people and our planet. You can find more of her thoughts at A Healed Life: The Life Worth Living at