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Making and Recycling Paper at Home

G. Carboni, January 2005
Translated by Jennifer Spears




History of paper
How to make paper at home
Recycling paper
Recycling raw materials


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


Let’s pass to the experiment part of this article. By now, you understand that to make a sheet of paper, you must first get a suspension of cellulose fibers in water. Getting these fibers from a trunk is possible, but it would take too much time and effort. Therefore, we will use newspapers, from which it is easier to extract fibers. In this manner, we will also experiment with the possibility of recycling paper.


MATERIALS (figure 2):

- wooden frame
- sieve with holes of about 1 mm (available in a hardware store)
- Formica sheets
- rectangular bowl/container large enough to fit the frame
- mortar with pestle
- jug
- hairdryer
- newspaper
- green and dried grass (optional)
- flowers (optional)
- flat sponge
- water

Figure 2 - Tools to make paper at home.


With wooden boards, make a frame like that of figure 3. Mount the sieve underneath, with strips of wood and nails enclosing it (figure 4).


Figure 3 - Frame seen from above.

Figure 4 - Frame seen from below.


- soak some of the newspaper in water (it’s better if you let it to set for a day or two);
- squeeze out the excess water;
- with the mortar and pestle, crush a little bit of paper at a time until you get a homogeneous paste, consisting of fibers isolated from each other (figure 5);
- repeat this until you have enough paste;
- fill the bowl halfway with water;
- put the paper paste in the bowl and stir it to separate the fibers;
- remove any resulting clumps (a dense suspension of fibers must remain in the water);
- immerse the frame in the watery suspension in the bowl (the sieve should be facing the bottom of the bowl);
- slowly remove the frame from the suspension keeping it steadily horizontal; eventually move the frame to even out the layer of fibers (figure 6);
- wait for the water to drain;


Figure 5 - With mortar and pestle, crush some of the newspaper
until you get a homogeneous paste in which the fibers are isolated
from each other. Put this paste in a water-filled bowl and stir by
hand to help the fibers separate from one another.

Figure 6 - Immerse the frame in the bowl, collect part
of the fiber suspension, and slowly remove the frame.


- place the smooth side of a sheet of Formica on top of the sheet of paper still soaked with water;
- press on the Formica a little to drain the water, taking care not to deform the sieve (figure 7);
- with a sponge, collect water from underneath and squeeze it away every so often;
- carefully remove the sheet of Formica so that the sheet of paper remains attached to it (figure 8);
- let the sheet of paper dry. To do this more quickly, you can dry it with a hairdryer (figure 9).


Figure 7 – Place a sheet of Formica on top of the layer
of fiber extracted and squeeze out the excess water,
without putting too much force on the sieve.

Figure 8 - Gently, remove the sheet of Formica and with it
the sheet of paper, which will again be soaked with water.


- make other sheets of paper, introducing to the suspension some grass crushed in the mortar;
- (optionally) later introduce some flower petals (without crushing them).


Figure 9 - Drying of the sheet with a hairdryer.

Figure 10 - The sheet of paper produced.

The presence of green and brown vegetable fibers from the grass will give your sheets a special charm. Also, the addition of petals will contribute to make the sheets more beautiful. You can even use the paper you will have made to write a letter.

The paper you make using this procedure (figure 10) will be bright on one side and opaque on the other. The bright side is more suitable for writing. This paper is highly permeable by ink, but it is possible to write on it using a ballpoint pen. If you want to reduce the absorbency of the paper you’ve made, soak it in a solution of water and gelatin and then let it dry again.


As you have seen, paper is made up of cellulose fibers held together by glue. By hand or even by means of special machines, it is possible to separate the fibers of paper from each other and reuse them to make new paper. In the industrial processes of recycling printed paper, a deinking treatment is often performed in order to brighten it.

What does recycling paper mean? As you know, to produce paper it is necessary to cut down trees. Considering the large quantity of paper used in the world (about 300 million tons), every year entire forests are cut down. This constitutes disruption to nature. Moreover, when paper is no longer needed,
it is often dumped in landfills, but part of it also ends up in the environment, contributing to pollution. Recycling paper means reducing both the number of trees cut down and pollution to the environment (figure 11).



Why do we use the term recycling? Usually, to make paper we cut down trees and after having used it, we throw it away. As figure 11 shows, this corresponds to a linear movement from forest to landfill. If instead we also use already used paper to make new paper, rather than going to landfills, paper returns to the market. Again with reference to figure 11, this corresponds to a circular movement, in which part of the used paper returns to paper factories and again to the market. This circular movement can be repeated several times and can be applied to other materials, garnering the important advantage of notably reducing the damage to nature caused by our activities.


Other than paper, is it possible to recycle other materials? Absolutely! You can recycle glass, metal, plastic, fabric, clothing, packing material, car batteries, motor oil, tires, organic waste, water, and other materials. Though not intended for recycling but for controlled disposal, pharmaceuticals, batteries, paint, plaster and other waste which, if left in the environment, would cause pollution are also collected.

Glass is produced by melting sand at high temperatures. In turn, glass items can be melted again and transformed into new products. Bottles and jars brought to temperatures between 800 and 1500°C soften and then melt. At this point, the material is homogenized by stirring, is refined, and is often bleached. It can then be used to make new glass items. The recycling of glass is very beneficial in terms of energy conservation.

In addition to recycling, we also need to consider reusing products. Some types of bottles and other glass containers can be washed and reused dozens of times. The system of depositing bottles is highly respectful to the environment. In fact, reusing items is more efficient energy-wise than recycling them. Knowing how to use products without ruining them means prolonging their life and reducing the need to buy new ones.

Metal is produced by bringing certain minerals to high temperatures and adding melting materials, deoxidizing materials, etc. To be recycled, metal must be collected and separated by type: steel, cast iron, copper alloys, aluminum alloys.

Aluminum alloys melt around 550-650°C according to the alloy. Since the normal production of aluminum from bauxite requires large quantities of electrical energy, the recovery of this metal is particularly important.

Copper is widely used in making electrical wires. Copper alloys are widely used in factories. The main copper alloys are bronze (copper + tin) and brass (copper + zinc). Copper melts at 1083°C, bronze between 900 e 1000 °C, and brass at about 900°C. The world reserves of copper are becoming exhausted, making the recycling of this material important.

In metallurgy, one distinguishes iron (chemical element) from steel, which is an alloy derived from iron and other elements. Cast iron has a higher carbon content than steel. When burnt in furnaces for the production of steel, carbon frees large quantities of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and pollutes the atmosphere. Steel melts at about 1500°C, is inexpensive, and is not particularly rare, but the collection and reuse of scrap iron is nonetheless useful because it reduces the need for extracting iron ore and the amount of carbon necessary to produce new steel. Because of the presence of nickel in their alloy, austenitic stainless steel is expensive and recycling it is important.

Plastic is derived from oil and is rather costly as well as its producing processes often being polluting. Many plastics break down very slowly and when they end up in the environment, they pollute it for a long time. Many dolphins and whales die because of plastic bags carried to sea by the wind that they end up swallowing. Recycling plastic is therefore important for economical reasons, energy conservation, and for reducing pollution to the environment. On the market, there are many different kinds of plastic such as polyethylene, PVC, polystyrene, polypropylene, etc. In order to recycle them efficiently, they could be separated by polymer type. Unfortunately, this is difficult to do, and for the time being we are limited to a unsorted collection of only a few types of plastic.

All plastics can be recycled by the process of pyrolysis. Pyrolysis consists of bringing plastic to a temperature of 500°C in the absence of oxygen. At this temperature, plastic decomposes producing gases which can be used to make new plastic or can be burned for the purpose of creating electrical energy.

Food scraps, cut grass, small pruned branches, fallen leaves, etc. are easily decomposed by bacteria, earthworms, and other little organisms. At the end of this process, we are left with a very fertile soil, called compost, for use in agriculture. To facilitate their transformation into compost, organic waste is gathered in the appropriate containers (composters) where they undergo the biological transformation described above. The recovery of organic waste is important because it is rather voluminous and becomes rather costly for normal disposal. Moreover, if thrown into dumpsters, the food scraps would dirty any other recyclable items in the garbage making those items less easily separable and collectible. Returning organic substances to farmlands or even your own backyard through composting renders the soil more fertile and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers.

Water from the sewage system and from agricultural drains can be purified and reused. One of the processes of purification consists of making water flow into lakes or special purifying plants, where the organic substances present in it are used as food by bacteria and other microorganisms. At the end of the process, these substances are transformed into mud which sediments at the bottom. Passes across sand and other procedures complete the purification of water, which can again be made drinkable. Often, the resulting mud can be used in farming as fertilizer. Also most of the runoff water from industrial processes can be purified.

Recycling raw materials is important for reducing the damaging alterations to the environment produced by human activities. By recycling raw materials, we collect a smaller amount of raw material from nature and also reduce the amount of waste. Important steps in recycling raw materials include sorting them at home and in the office and a sorted garbage collection. Through sorted garbage collection, those materials which before were just throwaways that went towards polluting the environment have become more and more of an economic resource. Nowadays, an industry for the recycling of raw materials is on the rise. Companies which specialize in the online advertisement and sale of industrial waste which can be useful to other companies have also been born.


The analysis of the life cycle of products, or Life Cycle Assessment or Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), is an evaluation of the influence of products on the environment (environmental impact), calculated from their creation to their disposal. Studying the life cycle of a product means analyzing the materials used to produce it, the method of extracting the raw materials, the production process employed, how it is marketed, how and for how long it is used, and how it is disposed of. Life cycle analysis is calculated with reference to the environment, considering how the environment is altered at each stage of the product’s life. From this analysis, we can arrive at valuable directions on reducing the collection of raw materials from the environment and subsequently better recycling them. This analysis can also suggest which materials to use and which processes of extraction, manufacture, use, and disposal are most sustainable with respect to the environment (eco design). The object of LCA can also be activities and services, for example sanitation services, postal services, and obviously many other activities which do not yield tangible products but offer equally important social benefits.


In the course of this article, you have seen how paper is made and how it is possible to produce beautiful sheets of paper at home with little expense and limited equipment. Making paper with your own hands is without a doubt an interesting activity. It is also fascinating to know that the paper we use so nonchalantly is the fruit of a long journey, begun thousands of years ago when our ancestors took to drawing graffiti and paintings on rocks. From rocks, we passed to clay tablets, then papyrus, parchment, and only at the end, to paper. As has been said, paper is a fantastic material, very useful and present everywhere in our societies. The recent arrival of computers seems to put into question the existence of paper, which, according to some, is destined to disappear.

By now, several years have passed since we entered the computer age. More and more we read documents on monitors rather than paper. We record documents on media such as disks, but the use of paper has not abandoned and perhaps it hasn’t even diminished. Paper continues to be a part of our lives and many of us still prefer to read books on paper instead of on a screen. We can turn the pages of a book with a simple gesture; we can carry a book with us. Reading a book on a monitor is not as comfortable and our eyes tire quickly. Moreover, reading a book on a screen forces our bodies into an unnatural stationary position which after a while tires us.

Electronic devices dedicated to the reading of books, newspapers, and other documents on a flat screen are appearing. These devices allow you to read a page at the time and to move to the next page by pressing a key. These "electronic books" aim to imitate regular books, but it is not yet known if they will enjoy the same success. On the horizon, we foresee books, magazines, and newspapers made of electroluminescent plastic sheets which will receive the news from the Internet.

The computer medium on which people write or draw is intangible, or rather, it is made up of different kinds of disks; but on these disks we cannot see anything, and to read them, it is necessary to insert them into a suitable reader. The material on which are documents are saved is perishable. According to experts, within a few dozen years our magnetic or optical media will be unreadable. It’s a real shame for a technology as complex as ours to not even withstand comparison in terms of durability to cuneiform tablets which have retained their information for over 5000 years!

In this article, you have seen how recycling paper is possible and useful, and from there we moved on to discussing the recycling of other materials. You may have also realized how useful and important recycling is in reducing the collection of raw materials from nature and in minimizing environmental pollution. While scientists study new methods of recycling and many companies analyze the life of products in order to reduce their environmental impact, companies which turn waste into resource are booming. The world is constantly changing and I am convinced that paper will survive the computer era wonderfully, and most likely, paper will stay with us for a long time to come.

BIBLIOGRAPHY  Papermaking Techniques  Articles on Hand Papermaking for Beginners  American Museum of Papermaking  Recycling Paper and Glass  History of Glass  Life Cycle Assessment  La Fabrication du Papier (d'après les illustrations de l'Encyclopédie de Diderot et D'Alembert)  Museo didattico del libro antico, tecniche di arte libraria antica

Internet keywords:
papermaking, history paper, recycling paper, stock exchange waste recovery


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