What do you get if you mix rags, hemp and old fishnets with the bark of a mulberry tree? Mercifully, this isn’t a recipe for a particularly revolting folk remedy. In fact, it’s the ingredients for paper – as it was made in ancient China, that is. At the time of its invention, life was hard if you had something you needed to remember. Legend has it that when one learned man presented a list of his policy suggestions to the Han emperor he served, he had to use some 3,000 bamboo strips to write them on. Two of the strongest men around were needed to carry them. 

So when a government official finally invented paper in AD105, it was a big deal. It involved mashing up a bizarre concoction of cloth, bark and nets with some water to form a paste, and then flattening it out to dry in the sun. The new invention was a hit with the emperor – though initially it was only used for wrapping precious objects. But soon enough, paper began to change the world. 

Within 650 years, printing had arrived. The first books, playing cards and toilet paper soon followed. In the Middle East, the introduction of paper coincided with the Golden Age of Islam, allowing scholars to record their breakthroughs in the budding fields of astronomy, medicine, engineering, literature and mathematics. 

It took more than a thousand years to arrive in Europe, where people had to make do with writing on the skins of calves, goats and sheep. It’s been estimated that Europeans slaughtered at least 4.2 million sheep alone between 1150 and 1850 to make parchment; the result was an expensive product largely confined to the wealthy. When large-scale paper milling finally reached Europe, it made mass literacy possible in the region for the first time. 

Today, in an age of computers, smartphones and e-books, you could be forgiven for predicting the demise of this ancient wonder material. But though there has been a small decline in the demand for so-called “graphic paper”, like newspapers and books, the paper industry is booming.  

The world currently uses around 400 million tonnes of paper per year. And from money to cardboard boxes, to receipts, coffee cups, stick-on notes, baking paper, egg cartons, birthday cards, straws, wrapping paper, and, of course, papier-mâché, it’s hard to imagine modern life without it. We might be edging towards a cashless society, but the paperless society, as the American librarian Jesse Shera famously put it, “is about as plausible as the paperless bathroom”. 

In fact, demand for paper is growing all over the world, and as we turn our backs on single-use plastic, paper is one of the main contenders to take its place. The last few years has seen numerous retailers announce that they are switching to paper bags, while paper-based chocolate wrappers, ready-meal trays and water bottles have also started to emerge.

In Canada, the government recently approved a ban on certain plastic items, while the EU has pledged to eradicate some of the most notorious by 2021. Some Indian states have gone further, ditching single-use plastic altogether. Many businesses have already announced that they will be replacing throw-away plastic items with paper versions.

But how sustainable is paper really? And what can be done to reduce its environmental impact?

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