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What is Paper?

Derived from the name of an Egyptian reed (Cyperus papyrus), paper is the common name for all kinds of matted or felted sheets of fibre – largely cellulose or plant-based fibre. In fact, paper can be made from any fibrous material such as wood, straw, cotton, or even grass. 

In South Africa, paper is made from fresh or virgin wood fibre of sustainably cultivated trees, recycled fibre from used paper products, or a mixture of both. To a smaller degree, bagasse (waste from sugar cane processing) may also be added to paper pulp recipes.

From wood, we also make pulp and cellulose, which are used in a variety of textile, pharmaceutical, medical packaging and food applications.

Mention paper and people think: pristine sheets of white copy paper. But walk around your home or office and pick out the things made from or contained in some form of paper.

Did you find toilet tissue? A medicine box? Cereal packaging? A milk carton? What about books, notepads or a shoebox that you’ve been saving for some reason? A photograph on your fridge, perhaps?

Without paper and board, many of us would not be able to read, teach or learn; convey messages or market our products. We would not be able to ship merchandise, or protect goods, nor improve our lives with personal hygiene products and tissue.

Across the world, wood, paper and tissue products touch lives every day and in ways we rarely notice. Paper is used in printing, for writing and stationery, for packaging food and goods and for hygiene. Paper is also used for money and passports and keeps a record of our transactions. We like to think that paper is the mother of inventions.

Paper is quite simply, and remarkably, a part of every facet of life.

“We live in a paper world. Without paper our lives would be unimaginable. Or almost unimaginable. We can, of course, imagine it, as we can imagine anything, for the great writers and artists and musicians have taught us to imagine, in their books and their paintings, and through their music. We have been trained by them, educated by them on paper, and through paper, and by paper. Like being dead, or never having been born… Imagine for a moment that paper were to disappear. Would anything be lost? Everything would be lost.”

IAN SANSOM, Paper: An Elegy

Paper Today

Thanks to advances in technology, it’s a bit less labour intensive to make paper. Around the world, paper is made using wood fibre from trees and recycled paper – which also came from trees in the first place!

Trees! Yes, in South Africa, we make paper from farmed eucalyptus (hardwood) and pine (softwood) trees. We farm the wood (and other parts of the tree) in plantations – like a crop. Our sector has people planting trees, helping them reach the required age, and we have people to harvest them and take them to a mill. We also have people who help us grow new trees from seedlings, which are then taken to the recently harvested area for planting. The process makes our trees, wood and paper a renewable resource, as we are continually replenishing by what we take out.

Sustainable forestry works differently to deforestation. Deforestation is the removal of trees and natural forests – WITHOUT REPLANTING – for the likes of urban development (shopping malls, our homes, office parks) and agriculture. So, think again before you say that wood and paper production cause deforestation.

The Papermaking Process

We like to use the analogy of chocolate cake when talking about paper. Your granny’s chocolate cake recipe might call for oil, whereas your friend’s might need eggs. These two ingredients will yield different textures. The same goes for paper.

Each type of paper has a weight, thickness, transparency, appearance and durability. Paper used for newspapers is different to magazine or book paper. The paper we feed into our printers is different to toilet or tissue paper.

The way paper will be used and how long it needs to last will determine what goes into the pulp recipe and what process is used – much like different types of cakes need different ingredients!

Some paper and paperboard will be made from virgin wood fibre. For this reason, it is important to make sure you use paper that has been certified as sustainably produced and sourced. In South Africa, we only produce paper products using fibre that comes from responsible plantations or from recycled paper.

Some recipes might call for more virgin wood fibre than recycled paper fibre; others may use 100% recycled paper. However, because paper fibres shorten and weaken each time they are recycled (up to seven times), virgin fibre will be added to the mix. Again, it’s all about the recipe and the end product that is needed.

There are some mills with paper machines which can only certain kind of paper; other machines are able to “swing”, meaning they could make printing and writing paper one month, and packaging paper the next, depending on the customer requirements and demand.

Be a Responsible Paper User

Check the label

Buy paper, print, packaging and tissue products that carry certification such as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).

Buy local

Print your documents on locally-made A4 copy paper. (Recycled printing paper is imported and carries a hidden carbon footprint from transport.)

Print on both sides of your paper

This saves you money, and ensures that you are a mindful paper user.

Separate your waste

Separate your paper and paper packaging from other recyclables. Keep paper clean and dry for better recycling.