Alternatives to Wood-Based Paper

Books and a notepad. Photo by Cassandra Uchida.

The invention of paper allowed for even greater expression of the written word, allowing easier communication of messages, poetry, stories, and knowledge passed down for generations.  

Nowadays, paper is still one of the ways people choose to express themselves with written and typed words, much of that paper being pulp paper made from wood fiber. Many plants can be used to make paper, the best paper being made using plants with high percentages of cellulose. 

Cellulose is the main fibrous material needed to make paper, and each plant has a certain percentage of cellulose, such as wood which generally has 40-50% cellulose. Wood pulp paper is the most widely used and produced form of paper on the market due to it being cheaper to produce. It is however one of the less durable forms of paper that can be made, and there are multiple alternative plants that can be used to make paper for various purposes such as cotton, hemp, and okra. 

As cotton is already a fibrous product used in many clothing and textile products, it is also good to use in papermaking due to its incredibly high 90% cellulose content. Compared to tree fibers we use in mainstream papermaking, that is about twice the amount of cellulose content. Cotton paper, prior to the 19th century, was the primary form of paper produced for quite some time before it was replaced by the widely produced wood pulp paper we use today. While pulp paper processing has improved, cotton paper continues to be far more durable.  

There are different grades of cotton paper on the market currently. Cotton paper is given a grading based on the percent content of cotton within the paper; for example, some countries use 100% cotton paper in their bank notes. 

According to the American Forest and Paper Association, the first paper made by paper’s inventor, Cai Lun, who was a Chinese court official, is believed to have been made using the pulp of the hemp plant as well as mulberry bark and rags soaked in water.  

Hemp also contains high percentages of cellulose at about 57% when dried. Hemp was used for papermaking historically for 100s of years, but after the introduction of the wood pulp paper, the papermaking industry for hemp paper declined due to the wood pulp paper being cheaper and available alternative.  The fibers from hemp plant pulp are 4-5 times the length of fibers from wood pulp, allowing paper produced from them to be more durable.  

An issue with hemp paper production is that, because the paper market is skewed more towards wood paper, the production costs of hemp paper are higher than that of wood. Hemp fibers can also be recycled up to eight times, making the use of its fibers more sustainable. 

The stalks of okra plants, while currently used by papermaking hobbyists on a small scale, contain a percentage of cellulose content comparable to wood, with the stalks containing about 46-49% cellulose. Many paper makers that use the stalks to make paper report that it creates a very strong paper, although the paper is off-white in many cases. Most okra stalks tend to either go unused or be converted to cheap feed for livestock. For producers with leftover okra stalks, selling their unused stalks to papermakers could add to income instead of having them go to waste.  

While wood pulp paper is tried and true in general in our current paper market, there are still many alternatives that can be used to make usable and, in some cases, better quality paper from alternatives such as cotton, hemp, and okra. Wood pulp paper has many beneficial uses as the most widely used and produced paper, but other alternative paper sources have their own benefits and uses within the paper market, whether that be in the making of bank notes, recycling paper fibers, or small-scale hobby papermaking. 

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