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I Never Knew What It Took to Create a Piece of Paper

By Peter Davey

A lot of people talk about reducing the use of paper when printing. If you print duplex, you save at least one piece of paper. If your printer automatically removes blank pages, you save more. But did you ever think about what it takes to create a single sheet of paper?

According to the Water Footprint Network, about 10 liters (2.6 gallons) of water is used to create one A4 sheet of paper. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the average office worker in the US uses 10,000 sheets of paper each year, which translates into using 26,000 gallons of water in printing and copying.

Here are a few other facts according to the Environmental Defense Fund for how much a typical office worker impacts the environment with paper.

• Wood use – 400 pounds
• Energy use – 1.5M BTUs
• Greenhouse gases – 294 pounds
• Solid waste – 95 pounds

Most paper is made from wood pulp. The first step in making paper is harvesting of trees for fiber. After harvesting, trees are cut into logs and are transported to a mill, where a machine removes the bark cuts the logs into small pieces or chips.

Wood chips can go through a chemical or mechanical process to turn them into pulp. The point of pulping is to separate the cellulose fibers from the rest of the wood. Chemical pulping is the most common and produces very pure fibers so you can get a cleaner piece of paper.

Chemical pulping uses steam and a variety of chemicals to cook the pulp into a slurry. One of the byproducts of this process is releasing hydrogen and other sulfides into the air to create that rotten egg smell characteristic of mill towns.

The pulp is then bleached using a combination of chlorine gas and chlorine dioxide to purify and clean it. It’s then mixed with water and a pump sprays a thin layer of the liquid paper pulp onto a moving wire screen. As the pulp is carried along, the water in it drains and the cellulose fibers become matted together, forming paper. While the paper is still wet, it’s fed through a series of heated rollers which press and dry it.

Some of the paper used in printing has a thin coating applied onto the finished paper. Another process puts it through pressured rollers and heats it to create a smooth and glossy finish. The last stage is to cut the paper into sheets.

As you can see, creating one piece of paper involves quite a bit of energy, water, and chemicals, and creates a lot of waste. Since 30% of what is printed gets tossed out within 48 hours, looking for ways to reduce your paper usage is a great way to save money and the environment.

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