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History of Paper and the Impact of Paper Making on the Environment

Paper was invented by the Chinese in the early 2nd century AD but its use spread to the west very slowly. Paper was introduced to Europe by the Muslims only in the Middle Ages. The oldest evidence of paper use in Europe date to the 11th century, while the first paper manufacturing facilities emerged in Muslim controlled Spain and southern Italy. But paper replaced the expensive parchment extremely slowly. Widespread use of paper did not occur until the printing revolution in the 15th century. The first paper mill in Britain was built in 1490 by John Tate at Stevenage in Hertfordshire but the first commercially successful paper mill in Britain was set up one century later.


Paper is considered one of the most important inventions in human history, however, its significance become clear only after the 19th century advances in paper making which enabled industrial paper production and dramatically reduced its cost. This led to mass information exchange which played the key role in shaping the world in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Although paper is known to be made from wood, the use of wood pulp for paper making is actually a relatively recent invention. Until the mid-19th century, paper was made from fibre crops such as hemp and linen. The use of wood for paper making began only after the invention of mechanical pulping which was developed by two inventors independently – F.G. Keller in Germany and Charles Fenerty in Canada. The invention of pulping was quickly adopted by most paper mills and by the end of the 19th century, most of paper was made from wood.

Reduced production cost and a number of other advances in information exchange such as mass produced pencil resulted in dramatic increase of paper production, while the demand for paper continues to grow. The rising rate of paper production, however, has led to serious environmental problems as 17 trees must be cut down to be able to produce 1 tonne of paper. Particularly problematic is clear cutting even if it is followed by reforestation because it dramatically affects the ecosystems and biodiversity in the area. The practice of reforestation helps reduce the impact of logging on the environment but it is not an ideal solution of the problem either because reforested areas often consist of a single tree species which decreases biodiversity.

Paper recycling does not eliminate the need for logging either, however, it has dramatically reduced the amount of trees cut down to make paper. Unfortunately, not all recyclable paper is collected but the statistics are encouraging. Nearly 65% of paper has been collected and recycled in Europe in 2007, while the recycling rate in 2010 even surpassed the expectations of the paper industry and reached nearly 69 percent. But since paper cannot be recycled indefinitely (a single piece of paper is typically recycled 5 to 7 times), it is also important to reduce the use of paper to the minimum.