Pulp and paper industry
Pulp and paper industry
Look around. How many things made of paper can you see? Magazines, books, notepads, boxes, tissues... Paper and cardboard are all around us! How did that happen?
It all starts one day over 2000 years ago, in China, when someone gets an idea... They put plant material, old rags, old fishing nets into a tub of water and mash them into a pulp. Then, they press the water out to make thin sheets from the pulp and leave them to dry in the sun. They have made the first ever sheets of paper! This new invention proves very useful.
It’s much more practical for writing on, than bamboo, silk, or the clay tablets used until now. Over the next few centuries, people keep experimenting with techniques for making paper. By the 800s the invention spreads to the Middle East, and then to Europe. In 1085, one of the first paper mills in Europe is built. It has tools powered by flowing water, which pound old rags to make paper pulp.
This makes paper production much easier. Soon, paper is produced at paper mills all across Europe. In the 1500s, a mechanical printing press is invented. Now books and documents can be produced quickly. Paper is in higher demand than ever!
But the raw materials for paper are in limited supply. It also takes a lot of work to run the watermills. So, paper remains an expensive luxury until the 1800s. Then a new method of making cheap paper out of wood pulp is invented. This is a breakthrough for the paper industry.
Today, the pulp and paper industry is one of the largest in the world. The leading producer of paper is China, producing over 100 million tonnes a year, closely followed by the United States. In total, over 400 million tonnes of paper and cardboard are produced every year. An average person uses more than 60 kilograms of paper products yearly! You might expect most of the paper is being used to print books, newspapers, magazines.
But actually, over half of all paper produced is made into packaging. A quarter becomes graphic paper used for printing and writing. The rest is used mostly to produce cheap, low-quality newsprint paper for newspapers or advertising materials. Or to make hygiene products such as tissues and toilet paper. An industry this large has a big impact on the environment.
Firstly, making all this paper requires a lot of energy. In 2014, the paper industry accounted for 5% of the world's total energy use. Paper production also uses up a lot of water, produces harmful gases, and causes pollution. On the plus side, the raw materials used to make paper — wood and plant fibres — can be grown over and over again. They are renewable.
As long as new trees are planted to replace those cut down to make pulp, their environmental impact is minimal. Old paper can also be recycled, and made into new paper. In countries with plenty of recycling plants, as much as 70% of used paper is recycled. Paper recycling produces 40% less gas emissions. It requires 25% less energy than making paper from raw materials.
In recent years, some areas of paper production have become less profitable — after all, more and more messages, documents and even books are now read on screens rather than on paper. However, paper packaging is increasingly gaining popularity. So, the overall demand for paper is rising, and the trend looks set to continue.