Making and Recycling Paper at Home

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Paper is a fantastic material suitable for numerous uses, including manufacturing notebooks, books, calendars, and magazines, wrapping gifts,

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and wrapping items in stores. Paper is widely used in offices for writing, printing documents, and photocopying. At home, paper is used to clean, to dry things, and for many other purposes. In short, paper is one of the most versatile and common products of modern societies. In this article, I will describe how to make samples of paper and I will outline the theme of recycling raw materials.    

Paper is so essential to writing that we couldn't do without it, and yet it was not invented until several millennia after the invention of writing. So, what did people write on before the invention of paper? Some dozens of thousands of years ago, primitive humans started to draw graffiti and paint hunting scenes on rocks and cave walls. They also carved notches on sticks, shells, bones, and stones. It seems they used these signs to count things like days, lunar months, and the animals they bred. From these first paintings and carvings begins the path that will lead to writing, but also the history of the materials used for writing begins here. It is of these items that I will speak in this section.

Writing was invented about 5500 years ago by Sumerians, a people devoted to agriculture who lived in ancient Mesopotamia. As a medium for their texts, Sumerians used clay tablets. Clay is basically mud and in their alluvial plains they had plenty of it. With clay, they prepared tablets in which they etched pictures or symbols as long as the tablets were still damp and soft enough. These tablets were then left to dry so that the signs engraved could be kept for a long time. First Sumerians, then Babylonians and Assyrians used these tablets primarily for administrative purposes and notating agricultural products delivered to warehouses near temples. Tablets were often stored on wooden shelves. The only possible danger would have been water which could ruin the tablets. Conversely, if a fire were to break out, the clay tablets would undergo a cooking that would transform them into terracotta, a material impervious to water and able to last thousands of years. Fires which because of accidents or war sometimes struck the archives of these ancient people allowed thousands of cuneiform tablets to be preserved till modern times. Their deciphering by archaeologists is giving us important information on the ancient civilizations which produced them.

Shortly after the Sumerians, ancient Egyptians developed their own writing. They took some of their symbols from the Sumerians, but also invented many other symbols, comprising an original scri‌pt of their own. Egyptian writing was prevalently used for sacred and celebratory purposes; for this it came to be called hieroglyphic (‘sacred writing’). Egyptians sculpted or painted their writings on stony temple walls and wooden sarcophagi. One of the most important inventions of the Egyptians was the papyrus, a medium which begins to have some likeness to paper. Papyrus takes its name from the plant from which it was obtained. This plant has its roots in water and develops a long cylindrical stem which ends with a tuft of narrow and long leaves. From the spongy stem of this plant, Egyptians extracted thin strips that they placed side by side, partly overlapping them. Subsequently, over the first layer of strips, they superimposed a second layer, placing the strips transverse to those below. The natural glues present in this plant’s tissue insured the adhesion of the strips. Other sheets were often adjoined to the first sheet, rendering strips that could even be several meters long and that came to be rolled up in volumes. To improve the possibility of using this surface for writing, Egyptians beat, scraped, and smoothed papyri during their production. Egyptian scribes wrote on papyrus using brushes and ink. Pictures of the fabrication of papyrus.

Ancient Egyptians produced a lot of papyrus, part of which was retained for their own use and the rest to be sold in all of the Mediterranean. Among their best customers were the ancient Greeks and Romans. Unfortunately, because of political and economic crises which struck Egyptian society in the last centuries before Christ, the production of papyrus diminished. The price of the product increased and it became necessary to find a substitute. In the city of Pergamus, people started using sheepskin as a medium for writing. From just one skin, one could get several sheets as it was possible to separate more layers from the skin. To make them suitable for writing, the skin had to be adequately prepared. Towards that goal, sheets were scraped to remove fat and flesh, then put out to dry on frames which kept them tight. The final product was parchment, a material highly suitable for writing which came to be used in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, up until the introduction of paper. An old parchment could be scraped of the previous writing and could therefore be reused. In this manner, however, many works by Greek and Roman authors have been lost.

According to the Chinese, paper was invented in 105 A.D. by an official of the Emperor, but recent archaeological findings have shown that paper was already being used in China at least 200 years before this. The Chinese used large quantities of paper made from rags and vegetable fibers extracted from hemp, bamboo, mulberry, willow, etc. They also used paper to make fans, hats, clothes, and other everyday objects. Paper was brought and spread to many Eastern countries by Buddhist monks.

In 751 A.D., after a thirty-one-year war, Arabs defeated the Chinese in battle. Among the prisoners taken were paper factory workers who taught the technique of papermaking to the Arabs. Soon thereafter, Samarkand became an important center of paper production. As raw materials, the Arabs used linen and hemp rags. A few centuries later, the art of papermaking came to Egypt, then Morocco, and from there Spain. The first Spanish paper factory was opened in 1009.

In 1250, Italy became the biggest producer of paper, which came to be exported to many European countries. To make paper less absorbent, Arabs used glues derived from vegetables, but this type of paper was susceptible to mold and quickly deteriorated. By using glues derived from animals, Italians greatly improved the quality of paper and its duration could reach many centuries. In fact, today we know of paper documents which are still in very good condition after more than 700 years from their production. An important Italian papermaking center was Fabriano, where the watermark was invented. Within about three centuries, the technique of papermaking spread from Italy to all of Europe and then to the Americas.

In the beginning, Arabs and Europeans made paper out of rags. As time passed, the demand for paper quickly increased, so much so that after a while, rags were no longer sufficient. In search of a substitute to rags, in 1719 a Frenchman, who had observed wasps while building their nests, suggested
trying wood to make paper. The trials that were carried out were a success and since then wood has become the main raw material for producing paper.

To separate individual fibers of cellulose from each other, rags and wood were placed in mortars and beaten by heavy pestles operated by hydraulic wheels. When the mixture of fibers was ready, workers poured it into vats full of water. They then immersed special sieves into the vats and extracted them collecting a part of the suspension of fibers. During the extraction, workers moved the sieve in order to make the layer of fibers uniform. Then they let the water drain out, and they placed the layer of fibers on a piece of felt which was placed on a pile of other sheets and bits of felt. This pile was pressed to squeeze away the water. Finally, the sheet of paper was hung to dry.

In the beginning of 1800, the French and the English began to build machines for the perpetual production of paper. Paper machines were equipped with a long sieve in the form of a moving belt which collected a continuous layer of fibers from the suspension. During its run, the ribbon of paper under formation has glue, mineral additives, and other substances added to it; then it is squeezed of excess water, dried, and rolled. Finally, it is gathered in large rolls and sent to factories which turn it into newspapers, notebooks, and many other products. The fabrication of paper by hand is still practiced to produce precious sheets or for artistic purposes, but this represents a very small quantity of the paper produced in the world.

Modern paper is therefore produced primarily from wood and it is made up of numerous cellulose fibers that are held together by glue. Paper can undergo special treatment in order to make it suitable for whatever intended use. Take for example the paper used for drawing and watercolors, which must have a specific thickness, a certain roughness and a certain absorbency, etc. It is also possible to make paper without adding glue, but the result is a very absorbent paper. To render it suitable for writing or printing, it is necessary to lower the absorption of ink which otherwise would spread. For this purpose, paper is glued, that is, animal or synthetic glues are added to it. To make paper less porous, more compact and even brighter, it is coated. Coating consists of adding very fine mineral powders such as kaolin, calcium carbonate, talc, fossil flour, and an appropriate adhesive such as casein or other types of glue. The sheet passes through rollers which press it with force (calandering) and comes out bright.

Often people use tissues or paper napkins to clean the lenses of glasses or cameras, but the presence of mineral powders make ordinary paper products unfit for this purpose. In fact, when rubbing on delicate optical surfaces, these mineral particles cause microscopic streaks which ruin the quality of the lens. To clean lenses, you can use special paper products specifically produced for that function, composed solely of pure cellulose.

Unfortunately, certain modern papermaking processes greatly reduce the life of paper, which within a few years tends to yellow and weaken. Processes exist which instead produce paper capable of lasting centuries, keeping itself in very good condition.

The importance of the invention of paper can be better understood if people think that before its arrival, to make a book in parchment, dozens or hundreds of skins were needed. Because of its uniformity in thickness, paper made possible the invention of the printing press. Before the invention of the printing press, books had to be written by hand. Together, these two innovations greatly lowered the cost of books and largely contributed to the spread of culture throughout the world.


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