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The Life Of Paper

The Life of Paper

It’s alive! At least it was. Love it or hate it, paper has a place in our world. And, not just as paper bags and note pads. Paper is abundant in packaging, building materials, marketing materials, and of common disposables like paper towels and toilet paper. It is everywhere. Though paper often gets a bad wrap, the case for using paper may not be as thin as you think.

It’s no secret that the main ingredient in paper is trees. Don’t get me wrong; I am a tree lover myself. We all should be, after all, forests are necessary for human survival. By absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide and providing oxygen in return, forests around the world provide a large percentage of the air we breathe. But, considering the alternatives of competing plastic products there are some compelling arguments for using paper. Consider a simple grocery bag. It may take 10-20 years to grow a tree for a paper bag. It can take millions of years to create the crude oil for a plastic bag. The plastic bag also takes hundreds or thousands of years to biodegrade whereas the paper bag will be back into the earth in less than a week. Trees are a renewable resource. Growing and processing trees is sustainable when managed responsibly. When oil is gone, it’s gone. And, it is estimated there is only about 100 years worth of oil left on earth. There is no solution that is totally friendly for the environment though. All mass-produced products use energy in some form or another. All have some amount of waste or environmental impact associated with them.

In regards to shopping bags, packaging, or household items, there are other alternatives besides paper or plastic. The “right” choice of material in these categories can be debated and discussed in depth. However, for purposes of this article, I am going to focus on paper for marketing materials; particularly, high quality sheets of paper that are used by print providers in the production of brochures, direct mail, and other marketing collateral.

Through organizations like Rainforest Alliance and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), forests all over the world are being managed in a way that not only maintain the health of a forest, but can also increase its size. Through sustainable forestry practices and the development of plantations, forest cover in the U.S. has increased by almost 30 million acres over the last 15 years. In contrast, forest cover in South America has decreased about 150 million acres in that same time period. Although the ability of the FSC and other organizations to prevent deforestation in developing countries has increased greatly over the years, their control is still limited and presented with major challenges due to socioeconomic and cultural factors. For this reason, when choosing a print provider, it is important that you know where they are sourcing their paper. Some print providers use cheap imported sheets from China and developing countries that are less controlled when it comes to the harvesting of trees.

The production of paper is a fascinating and surprisingly efficient process. Trees are harvested, debarked, and converted into small chips at a pulp mill. The bark is used as fuel to help power the mill. The wood chips are mixed with a natural acid and heated in a giant pressure-cooker called a digester. This cooking process separates the lignin from the plant fiber. Lignin is the liquid that binds the plant fibers together. The lignin byproduct, called black liquor, is also used as fuel to help power the mill. The plant fiber pulp is cleaned further to remove all remaining lignin, leaving the pulp bright white. The pulp is then dried, baled and sent to the paper mill to be used as the main structure for paper.

At the paper mill the pulp is mixed with water and formed into a paper web through a series of large cylinders. This process begins with the liquid pulp being dispersed between two large cylinders that compress the pulp and rapidly remove water to form the initial paper web. The paper web then continues through a series of metal cylinders and felt surfaces to further compress and dry the paper web until it is self-supporting. The paper web is then finished by applying a coating to create a gloss or matte surface (referred to as coated), or left raw (referred to as uncoated). The uncoated paper can also be compressed further to smooth it or create texture.

When choosing a paper for your print project, there are four general factors to consider: type, weight, finish and color.

Paper type: Paper is categorized in two general types: coated and uncoated. Coated stocks have a coating that provides a smooth surface and reduces how much the ink soaks into the paper; this yields brighter colors and sharper images. Common coated stocks include gloss, silk, satin, dull and matte. Satin, dull and matte stocks are often very similar, and sometimes indistinguishable, between different paper manufacturers. Uncoated stocks are just that; they do not have a coating. This allows ink to completely soak into the paper and yields softer color and images. Uncoated stock is good for reading because it has no glare. It is also best for writing and is used for letterhead and other stationery items. Uncoated stock should not be confused with matte paper, which is a coated stock.

Paper weight: Typically used to reference the thickness, paper weight is often measured by pound within categories of text and cover. Common weights from lightest to heaviest are 60lb. text, 80lb. text, 100lb. text, 80lb. cover, and 100lb. cover.

Paper finish: The paper finish involves surface treatments that create or reduce texture. Finish is mostly a factor when referencing an uncoated stock. Common finishes include smooth, super smooth, vellum, felt, linen, columns and canvas.

Paper color: The most available color is white, as one would guess. Though, just as in paint, there can be several shades of “white.” Most coated stocks only come in a single shade of white within a paper line. Uncoated stocks, however, are available in several shades of white as well as a variety of colors such as natural, crème, pastels and vibrant colors from black to florescent orange. There are also specialty papers such as metallic and pearlescent sheets that come in a variety of colors and can add a level of sophistication.1

The journey of paper from the forest to your mailbox is a complex one, and one that is often misunderstood. Paper has many uses within our consumable and marketing environments. If you are looking for the right paper for your printed collateral, marketing brochures, booklets, or direct mail, ask your print provider for recommendations. Printers and paper houses can provide swatch books from different mills so you can make the best choice for your print project.