Where Does Paper Come From?

 

Today, people are more aware of where the products they use come from and how they are made. For years, we wasted resources not fully comprehending the impact on the environment. While we see labels such as “Made from Recycled Paper,” where does our paper really come from? 

Paper Really Comes from Trees

Not surprisingly, most paper does come from trees! Specialty papers like rice paper, or paper made from hemp being two exceptions. Even if it’s made from recycled material, almost all paper originates from a forest somewhere. Most people feel that recovered fiber paper is better for the environment, but the debate runs deeper than that. Those choosing sides in this debate forget the critical point that virtually all paper initially came from the fiber of a tree.

How Paper is Made

Massive rolls at a printing plant where the sheets are cut at the desired dimension at the end of the press run.

Raw wood is the primary ingredient that paper manufacturers turn into wood pulp. The pulp consists of lignin, chemicals, water, and cellulose wood fibers. There are two primary ways to create pulp, both of which intend to remove the lignin content from the fiber source.  Think of lignin as the glue that holds the fibers together in a rigid cellular structure.  Traditionally speaking, the higher the amount of lignin you remove from the pulp, the higher the quality of pulp and subsequently paper is produced.  Lignin is also the compound in some papers that reverts, or yellows when exposed to periods of sunlight.

Chemical pulping, also commonly referred to as “kraft-pulping”, is the most common ways to make pulp. It utilizes chemicals and heat to separate the cellulose wood fibers from the lignin leaving a pulp mixture that produces stronger paper than other methods.

Mechanical pulping is another method, and it uses machines to macerate wood chips into pulp. The pulp made during this process is typically shorter in length, weaker and contains more lignin content than chemical pulps.  This paper is used mostly for phone books, newsprint, and other similar products.

Pulp is 99% water, so a separate process (wire forming) is necessary to separate the cellulose fibers from the water by spreading it across a screen. These separation processes include rolling, drying, and heating. Separating the water from the fibers occurs in the final papermaking steps.

 

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Type of Trees Used to Make Paper

Paper is made from softwood or hardwood trees, but 85% of the wood pulp that makes paper in the U.S. comes from softwood coniferous trees. They have longer fibers known to produce stronger paper. The primary trees in this category are pines, firs, spruces, hemlocks, and larch. Hardwoods used for papermaking include aspen eucalyptus, maples, birch, aspen, and oaks.

A Little Plant Biology

All plants consist of an outer cell wall that contains cellulose, lignin, and hemicellulose. Cellulose makes up most of the walls of the plant cell. It’s the part necessary for paper making. Compared to other cellulose sources such as bacterial cells and algae, trees are a renewable and abundant source.

Sustainability

Today, sustainability is an essential factor in the papermaking process. When harvesting trees careful consideration goes into improving and maintaining the biodiversity and sustenance of trees for future generations. Existing regulations, and economic conditions mean that urge forestry operations to must continually re-plant the ecosystem and invest in ongoing reforestation.

Other paper producing companies have explored other various options for getting the wood fiber needed to make large amounts of paper. Thinning to increase forest growth is one option to harvest the wood required to make paper. Thinning is a natural process that involves cutting down less developed trees to provide more nutrients and light to the healthy trees. The thinning process is necessary to encourage the growth of robust trees and forests.

It’s vital to use and manage the forest responsibly. Many mill forestry operations now plant two new trees for everyone that they harvest for papermaking. Many utilize sawmill chips as well, versus large planks of wood. Some operations, because they are replanting constantly anyway, will harvest younger trees, which are easier to pulp.

Even paper distributors such as Woodland Paper care about the materials used to create their paper products. People are much more environmentally aware today. They understand that it is possible to produce the paper products that we need sustainably and responsibly, and they want to work with vendors who can ensure the integrity of the supply chain when it comes to delivering green paper products.