Not Written Off

Long before the advent of the iPad, a stigma hung over the copy paper we write and print on – one so strong it has a way of even making the single-use paper products we use to wipe our hands, faces and other parts seem like dinosaurs.

Consider these words, in 1995, from George Costanza, Seinfeld’s lovable TV sidekick:

George: “Do you realize that toilet paper has not changed in my lifetime? It’s just paper on a cardboard roll, that’s it. And in 10,000 years, it will still be exactly the same because really, what else can they do?

George’s date: “That’s true. There really has been no development in toilet paper.”

George: “And everything else has changed. But toilet paper is exactly the same, and will be so until we’re dead.”

Indeed, papermaking is a centuries-old practice, and parts of it will carry forward in very familiar ways for some time. Scholars believe it was invented in China during the 2nd century B.C. and used initially for padding and wrapping purposes, not unlike how we use paper for packaging purposes today.

Yet like a grandparent who surprises us with reminders of how hip they are (and not the kind that requires replacements), paper is more dynamic than we tend to give it credit.

It’s a good thing that our ancient Chinese predecessors didn’t pigeonhole paper. Sheets for writing were developed in China not long after its initial development – a design-tweak that forever transformed the world. In 589 A.D. when China was experiencing dramatic population growth and becoming a hub for international commerce, paper started being used for human hygiene purposes, and the first recorded use of toilet paper is documented. By the 8th century, paper was manufactured in mass by the first pulp mills, and thinner, lighter paper was produced, sewn and bound together with silk and leather to spur a booming book industry and sparked a vast transfer of knowledge.

Today, new developments in technology, hygiene and commercialism continue to advance the creation and application of paper products in important ways. Today’s single-use paper offerings are thicker, stronger, moister and skin-friendlier than before. Yet because these innovations fall short of the exponential evolution of computers documented through Moore’s Law, it’s easy to discount them as tired technology, if technology at all. In the world of bathroom towel and tissue where paper is a proven, hygienic marvel, it gets a particularly raw deal.

The fact is that over the past 10 to 20 years, the paper industry has made major strides. Consider the advent of the advanced tissue molding system technology in Brazil approximately 10 years ago. For 30 years before this invention, many towel and tissue manufacturers relied on through-air-drying (TAD) processes to produce highly absorbent, “fluffy” bathroom products to the delight of consumers. Unfortunately, this process required heavy investments in money and energy and relied solely on virgin fiber sources at great expense to trees.

Seeking a more cost- and energy-efficient production method for the premium products that many consumers now demand, the engineers served up a TAD-equivalent production method that uses a vacuum roll rather than hot air to dry the tissue. Importantly, the process generates 35 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions and is compatible with 100 percent recycled fiber. As consumers responded positively to this hard-to-detect change and the bottom-line and environmental benefits became more obvious, numerous paper companies adopted the technology and process, collectively making a big environmental impact.

Moist toilet tissue, to cite another example, has become an innovative hit as well. Emanating out of Germany and developed by several manufacturers, the product gained traction throughout Europe and grew more than 10-fold in market value in a little over a decade. 

Paper has become a much more formidable germ killer in recent years, too. It is well documented from the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization and other sources that a clean paper towel is the best tool for drying hands to avoid spreading bacteria. Research indicates that 80 percent of infections in the United States are transmitted by hand contact, and that air dryers pale in comparison from a hygiene standpoint. 

So three years ago, the antibacterial paper towel emerged as a dry hand towel infused with benzalkonium chloride, a safe active ingredient used since the 1930s in products like mouthwash, baby wipes and contact lens solutions. This paper technology required no change in habits. In fact, it helped compensate for people’s imperfect hand cleansing routines by releasing the ingredient to eliminate 99.99 percent of residual bacteria on hands once activated by water. 

Now used every day by food processors, restaurants, schools and daycare centers, hospitals and other health-conscious organizations, the product has no doubt had a positive impact on eliminating absenteeism, boosting productivity and generally keeping people healthy.

Other paper manufacturers have followed with different kinds of impregnated paper products. Earlier this year, one major manufacturer launched a paper towel containing dish detergent for household use, for example.

Making what’s perceived to be old new again is always a challenge. But certain products – paper, soap, water, even clothing – have stood the test of time for good reasons. They effectively address fundamental needs. 

Change is arguably more present, exciting and flashy than ever before in history. Yet change for the sake only of change and at the expense of value is certainly a mistake. 

So let’s resolve not to thumb our noses at the facial tissue that wipes them by discounting paper simply because it has existed for a while. Instead, let’s salute its longevity and keep an optimistic mindset about how it can preserve and help our civilization and our planet in beneficial new ways. 

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