Remember when the 1980s brought us the first wave of the modern computer and electronics revolution? At that time, heady young technocrats foresaw "the paperless office." It was claimed that paper would become a thing of the past as everyone would access all information needed from video screens.
The reality today is quite different. More paper than ever is being used in offices, schools, and residential homes. One's first possession in life is a birth certificate, made of paper. Childhood immunizations are recorded on paper and kept in the doctor's office and at home. What would school be like without paper? Paper follows most people throughout their education and into their working life. Wedding invitations and marriage certificates are printed on paper, as are virtually all major life passages and social occasions. Finally, a death certificate on paper will continue to be around long after the person named on it. Perhaps the one item which defines modern civilization more than any other is paper.
The word paper derives from papyrus, the name of a riverside plant similar to grass, from which an ancient form of paper was used in Egypt and Mesopotamia. It could be argued that these empires were made possible by the use of official records on papyrus. However, paper as we know it today has its origins in the Han dynasty of China. In about A.D. 105, an official in the imperial court produced the forebear of what has become today the world's most indispensable product. The art of paper making reached westwards to Baghdad, Iraq in the 8th century at the height of the Islamic culture. From there it entered Europe, where it was polished into its contemporary form during the 19th century.
Paper can be made from any plant, but trees are the best source of cellulose for paper production. In fact, earlier forms of paper were made from processed cotton waste and rags, but trees contain a better proportion and type of cellulose than any other plant. In countries with a deficiency of forest land, other natural fibers such as sugar cane pulp, bamboo, cereal straws, flax, and hemp are used. Today's paper and paper product mills rely on a steady inflow of wood logs or chips. In the United States alone, the paper and paper products industry is worth more than US$80 billion, with world production well over 100,000,000 tons annually.
Everyone knows what paper is, since most people use at least one sheet of it a day, but few people stop to consider the different kinds of paper available to us today. Office workers are well aware of the many kinds of paper they use, such as regular typing or computer printing or copier paper. They also come into contact with bond, a high-grade paper used for important documents. It is thicker and more durable than other forms of paper. Book paper comes in at least four different finishes. These may be seen in books, magazines, brochures, and calendars. Newsprint is used for newspapers and some magazines or books, while kraft paper is used for shopping bags. Paperboard is seen daily as box lunch containers, cardboard boxes, and even building materials. Finally, sanitary paper has been developed for use in tissue paper, paper toweling, and paper napkins. Carbon paper, postcards, and envelopes are also daily use items made of paper. Even a tea bag is made of paper!
Paper and its products seem endless, but conservation of even the abundant resource of trees is in everyone's interest. Recycling of paper and better designed pulp and paper factories have helped decrease waste. Many offices encourage the use of both sides of a piece of paper, for example, and students or private organizations sometimes collect old newsprint to send to reprocessing centers. By conserving paper, the average paper user in his lifetime can save at least one tree from being felled.As valuable as trees are, and as valuable as paper is, everyone should co-operate to use this essential commodity wisely.