Why is paper so valuable
Would our modern and democratic industrial societies exist without affordable books, magazines and newspapers? What caused the transformation from a luxury article to a cheap mass product to an environmental problem?
The long way to paper
Before the art of papermaking spread across Europe, texts were mainly written on parchment. It consisted of the depilated skins of animals. These were stretched, intensively scraped and sanded until a surface that could be written on was created.
By grinding with pumice stone, parchment could even be written on several times. Nevertheless, it was extremely valuable and, above all, reserved for religious texts.
Plant fibers are much cheaper than animal hides. In China, the production of paper from hemp was already known at the time of the early Han dynasty (180 to 50 BC). Later, paper could also be made from bamboo fibers and starch was used as glue so that very fine types of paper could be created.
Paper gained widespread use in China due to the great demand from government and the arts. The Chinese kept the art of papermaking a secret from outsiders until the 7th century. Only then did it spread to Korea and Japan.
Paper in Europe
Paper manufacture came to Europe through the Arabs, who expanded their empire to Spain in the 8th century. At first they exported paper to Europe, but in the 12th century the Arabs began making paper on Spanish soil.
Later the art spread to other European countries via Italy. On German territory, the first paper mill was set up in Nuremberg in 1390, thus creating an important prerequisite for the mass production of printed books.
In Europe you had to get by with the materials available here. Until the middle of the 19th century, paper consisted mainly of the fibers of linen, hemp and flax (rag). Since the valuable raw materials were first processed into clothing, the first recycling culture developed, that of the rag collectors.
Increase in demand through book printing
During the entire Middle Ages, hardly anyone in Europe could read and write apart from the priests and monks. Even kings were sometimes illiterate. The extensive knowledge of antiquity, which had been handed down by the Arabs, was only preserved in a few books.
These were copied by hand in monasteries and provided with artistic illustrations. So at least fragments of knowledge could survive the troubled times.
But the manuscripts were immeasurably expensive. As described vividly in Umberto Eco's novel "The Name of the Rose", the knowledge of an entire generation of researchers was destroyed by the fire in a single library.
It was not until Johannes Gutenberg developed book printing with movable type around 1445 and copperplate engraving followed in 1446 that fonts could also be produced in larger numbers. Of course, this also increased the demand for paper. The number of paper mills in Germany rose from 60 to 200 between 1500 and 1600.
Until the 19th century, however, the use of paper was largely limited to books and writing materials. Per capita consumption in Germany around 1800 was around half a kilogram.
This was not least due to the increasingly scarce raw material rags, which did not allow a larger production volume. The industrial revolution could only increase paper production when an alternative raw material could be used: wood. The basis for this was the invention of the Saxon Gottlob Keller. In 1843 he succeeded in making paper from softwood fibers.
As the population's level of education increased, so did paper consumption. Newspapers, magazines and finally packaging material increased consumption. As a result, knowledge has become affordable and accessible for everyone. Nevertheless, our society's hunger for paper has also created problems, especially for the environment.
Increasing paper production
In 1974 the worldwide paper consumption was 8.7 million tons, in 2018 in Germany alone the consumption of paper was more than 20 million tons.
A German child uses as much paper in his first year of life as many a Third World resident does not in his entire life. This comparison gives an idea of how much global paper production will increase once emerging and developing countries manage to catch up with us economically.
Despite an extensive collection of waste paper, it is not possible to make our paper production solely through recycling. Since the fibers become shorter and shorter when they are recycled, around 80 to 85 percent pulp has to be added, especially for high-quality papers, for example for high-gloss magazines and graphic papers.
However, up to 2.5 tons of wood are required to produce one ton of pulp. In Germany these come mostly from Scandinavian and worldwide mostly from North American coniferous forests. The forests that have been cut down in these countries, some of which are very old, are lost forever, but at least they are being reforested by young trees.
Ways out of abundance?
The taiga wood stocks have been ruthlessly exploited since the collapse of the USSR. The reason for the destruction of resources made possible by corruption: Poverty and economic hardship contrast with foreign pursuit of profit. The cut trees are drifting down the rivers to the Far Eastern markets.
A reduction in paper consumption is ecologically necessary. Technical alternatives have been around for a long time. More recent developments such as the e-book are already counteracting this. Too much paper is still being used across the board. Until the data is digitized as extensively as possible, everyone should do their best to use paper sparingly.
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