Today’s Solutions: September 26, 2023

From The Intelligent Optimist Magazine

Summer 2016

A new “stone” paper devised in Taiwan uses calcium carbonate instead of wood pulp. It could save the forests, but is the world ready for the ultimate paper-vs.-plastic question?

By Karin Klein

The first thing I notice about my new notebook is that a cheap ballpoint pen skates across the page effortlessly. The surface has the smooth feel and look of the paper for watercolor paints that I used as a kid. Okay, let’s be honest: the very first thing I noticed was that it cost more than $20, four times the similar-sized notebook I picked up from Staples that was made of sugarcane waste. This will prove important by and by.

The second thing is this ultra-smooth writing experience. A pencil flows across smoothly as well, and my gel pen skitters across the page as though it’s almost out of control. On further examination, when I pull a page from the notebook, it doesn’t tear at first. It stretches and wrinkles at the tear point, like heavy plastic sheeting, before ripping noiselessly, the edges of the tears completely smooth. If you dunk it in water, the ink remains unchanged, and the paper dries as though it has never met humidity.

The real story of this writing tablet, though, lies beneath its slightly plastic surface. This is stone paper, made mostly of powdered calcium carbonate—the stuff of chalk, seashells and eggshells—and thus, to be exacting about it, not paper at all, which by definition is made of wood or other fibers. This is a mineral product, not vegetable. And according to its producer and its advocates, stone paper is at least a partial answer to much of the heavy environmental burden of producing pulp writing materials.

Gone is the need to whack down trees; four billion of them a year, or a third of all the trees cut, are turned into paper (though in the United States many of those trees are replanted on private forests). No chlorine is required for whitening; calcium carbonate is so white by nature that it’s already used sometimes as a brightener in the manufacture of ordinary paper. Nor is acid needed, or water, while millions of gallons of water are used every day to make pulp paper. Calcium carbonate is cheap and widely available, one of the most common minerals on the planet and a frequent by-product of marble mining.

Better yet, stone paper is, theoretically at least, infinitely recyclable—both the powdered stone that accounts for 80 percent of the stone-paper material and the high-density polyethylene that makes up the other 20 percent. Polyethylene, a common plastic used for milk jugs and the like, binds the powder together and makes the paper flexible. (Try to imagine crushed chalk somehow sticking together enough to make paper and it becomes easy to see the necessity.)

Increased use of a petroleum product hardly makes for sustainable paper. But according to Gunter Pauli, a wholehearted fan of this new paper technology, that problem is overcome through an equally new recycling procedure: The used paper is warmed and then broken down into pellets, polyethylene and all. Those pellets are pulverized into new powder for a new batch of paper, with no need for additional plastic in the mix. In other words, plastic is required, but it can be reused endlessly to make more paper. By contrast, pulp paper can be recycled four to six times before the fibers become too short and weak to make a quality product.

Pauli is the Belgian founder of Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives, a nonprofit that advocates for and monitors sustainable industry models. He sees stone paper as not just an environmental groundbreaker, but also an economic engine for regions that lack the resources to produce wood-pulp paper.

“That is the main reason for its success—no water,” he says. “It can now be produced where rocks are abundant and water is scarce. That is a complete shift from the present: paper is produced where water is abundant and forests are healthy.” But sometimes that means cutting down virgin forest, and water scarcity is expected to be a growing problem under climate change.

The paper was the brainchild of William Liang, a Taiwanese businessman who for decades owned and operated plastic-bag factories. When high oil prices increased the cost of producing the bags in the late 1980s, he says, he began incorporating stone powder into the bags to reduce expenses. Sensing that the plastic-bag industry was on its way out altogether, though, he cast about for a way to make paper using the same components as in his bags—but with far more stone than plastic.

“I decided to sell all of my 14 plastic-bag factories in China to fully invest in my stone-paper-making study,” Liang says through an interpreter. Ten years of research and development finally led to machinery that would allow him to blend 80 percent stone powder—calcium carbonate isn’t the only mineral the machines can use—with plastic.

Liang serves as chairman of his paper-making company, Taiwan Lung Meng Technology, based in Tainan, Taiwan. The company says it has patents in more than 40 countries, distributing the product under several brand names, and is by far the biggest producer of non-fiber paper. The three Lung Meng factories are all located in China, and all but about 2 percent of their paper is sold in that country. But sales have already doubled within the past few years. The market is there for continued growth.

Though paper use has decreased slightly in the United States, it is growing globally, even in an era of more digital publishing. The world consumes 400 million tons of paper a year (up from 300 million tons in 2011), and that’s expected to rise to 500 million by 2020. Liang and his son Henry, the firm’s general manager, hope that stone paper eventually will make up half of that market. Their short-range plans call for ramping up to 10 million tons per year—which would require increasing the number of factories from three to 83.

Obviously, with a product that now has a fraction of 1 percent of paper production and sells almost exclusively in a single country, stone paper isn’t a household name at the stationer’s or office-supply store. It’s been used to make gift bags for the White House and Mercedes-Benz. Ogami, a notebook maker in Milan, Italy, has come out with a line of higher-end journals that use stone paper—like the one I purchased from Amazon. A few retailers offer such journals on the Internet, and in the United States, some Walgreens drugstores stock Oxford wire-bound notebooks with stone pages.

Price is a potential deterrent to growth. Consumers are increasingly eco-friendly, but it’s unlikely they would be willing to triple or quadruple their expenditures on notebooks or gift bags or pay a similar premium for books made of stone paper. But over time, as production increases and new economies of scale are reached, prices are likely to come down.

Even its fans will admit that stone paper doesn’t make the greatest office product. Because of the plastic, it can’t stand up to the heat of laser printers and some office copiers. The polyethylene also decomposes after a long period in direct sunlight, so if you’re the kind of person who leaves your paperwork out in the car until the annual deep cleaning, you could end up with a pile of white powder in your backseat. Nor would paper this heavy—it weighs 30 percent more than standard office paper—work for the likes of print newspapers, for as long as those last. The company does plan to address the weight problem, however, by injecting air into the process.

But paper that’s sturdy, tear-resistant and waterproof might be perfect for books, especially textbooks, whose young users can be hard on their school supplies. And publishers are starting to take notice.

“The Chinese government has committed to use this paper for schoolbooks,” Pauli says. “That means that the books are printed, used in the schools, and at the end of their life returned to the factory for 100 percent recycling for as many times as desired.”

A scenario like that, in which a central agency owns the paper and returns it directly to the manufacturer for recycling, would be ideal. But that’s not the system now in place, and no one knows whether the world is ready to create an entirely new recycling model for stone paper, returning it whole to factories. According to Pauli and Liang, stone paper also could be recycled with plastic waste or, to a lesser extent, with regular paper. But it’s less clear how well that would work within the more diffuse recycling systems we have today.

That’s why the paper also arouses skepticism. In the average household or business that might use a mix of traditional paper and its new stone cousin, into which recycle bin would this mix of calcium carbonate and plastic go?

“I consider most of the environmental claims to be bullshit” is the blunt assessment of Gerry Ring, an emeritus professor of paper science and engineering at the University of Wisconsin. The polyethylene is recyclable—just as your milk jug is—but according to Ring, it would need to go through an extensive process beforehand to clear out most of the calcium carbonate.

“If the stone paper enters a traditional recycling process, it would need to first undergo a high-shear pulping stage to disintegrate the sheet into suitably small particles,” he says, adding that if the paper were left in the sun for the polyethylene to decompose, it would emit carbon dioxide.

Joshua Martin, director of the Environmental Paper Network, a consortium of groups looking for ways to produce less environmentally harmful paper, finds the concept of stone paper intriguing, but at this point his organization is not recommending it. Martin likes the idea that the paper could theoretically be recycled whole, and for many more cycles than traditional paper. But he worries more about stone paper reaching the right hands for recycling. How would the recycling center know this was plastic waste, not paper? Yes, a big school system would know how to recycle its textbooks, but what about office workers? Would they know that the printer paper was made of wood, but the big, glossy report made of stone?

If it were to be recycled with regular paper, as Pauli says it can be, the recycling center would again have to know which paper was which, and how much of the stone stuff was entering the regular recycling stream, Martin says. If too much stone paper were left unrecycled, it could become an environmental troublemaker, piling up in landfills, increasing use of fossil fuels and negating its gifts to forests and clean water. Or perhaps if stone paper proved itself as a giant environmental step forward, it would be possible to set up enough stone-paper recycling centers for the product to have its own recycling stream.

Martin says that until more is known, environmentalists are more interested in improving recycling and getting paper companies to reduce and recycle the water they use, replant trees on private forest “plantations” or manage forests sustainably, such as by cutting second-growth trees rather than old-growth, limiting clear-cutting zones and not taking heavy equipment deep into forests, where you have to destroy a lot of forest just to get to your cutting zone. 

And there are other sources of paper fiber that are more environmentally friendly than wood. One of the most promising is wheat straw, the agricultural waste left after a wheat harvest. The straw is typically just burned, adding to air pollution, even though it makes high-quality paper. One telephone company is already using wheat-straw paper for its envelopes, Martin says, and there are plans to build a plant in Washington State for large-scale manufacture. My sugarcane notebook is another possibility. So is bamboo, though there are concerns about it becoming an invasive pest because the plant spreads easily.

But in Pauli’s eyes, the objections miss the point. The idea of stone paper isn’t the replacement of one raw product with another. It’s a “paradigm shift” in thinking about truly sustainable recycling—the kind that goes on forever, with no loss—as well as products that last longer. It uses 67 percent less energy. And conserving water promises to be an ever more important issue as climate change increases. Stone paper even transforms the current wasteful dynamic of shipping and post-industrial waste, Pauli says.

“The whole highly specialized packing and transport system of paper rolls is becoming obsolete,” he says. “Today, cellulose paper is rolled in sheets, and these huge rolls need special trucks, special cranes, special packaging (with a lot of plastic polymers to protect it from humidity), special warehouses and special cutting machines. So cellulose paper has a very costly and capital-intensive production, distribution and warehousing process.”

Under the new model, Pauli says, the paper is produced at the size requested by the customer, with the level of coating required for each job. “The advantage is that all cuttings [in wood-to-paper manufacturing] that today go into a big separate recycle with transport and water are processed immediately at the factory site. There is no post-industrial waste, there is no warehousing waste.”

The company’s emphasis on serving institutional clients will keep larger percentages of the paper coming back to the factory for recycling. In essence, Pauli says, the paper is leased rather than purchased. It’s not “sold” by Lung Meng Technology because it continually returns.

Liang points out that although stone paper might not be well understood by North American environmental groups, his paper was the first Taiwanese product to be awarded Cradle to Cradle certification, a recognition bestowed in January 2016 by Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute for fully sustainable products.

In the end, the question might not be how much stone paper can change the world, but whether the world is willing to change its long-established patterns to make way for something that confounds our way of thinking about one of the most basic and humble supplies in our daily lives.

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