Wednesday, January 14, 2009

great innovation

Rick Maxwell put me onto this wonderful eco-innovation in books

By Joseph Rinkevich
MBDC Vice President of Client Relations
and Business Tools
What is paper?

Think of your favorite magazine, morning newspaper, or a book you are currently reading. (If you're reading Cradle to Cradle right now, this will be a trick question.) Or think of the reams of copier or computer paper flowing through your office or home each week, and off to the recycling center.

But what is the future of paper? The answer from here might surprise you. Then again, if you've been reading MBDC's monthly web features, the answer may be no surprise at all. Paper is an excellent medium for actualizing Cradle to Cradle Design. And doing it need not require a single tree.

Read on.

Today's Paper Trade

Most paper is made from cellulose—a fibrous material the paper industry mostly gets from trees. (If your paper tastes are more exotic, you could get your cellulose from hemp, kenaf, cotton, banana leaves, or even seaweed.) Making paper from trees came about for some pretty good reasons. Trees are abundant, renewable and versatile resources. Processing them into paper is cheap, especially at scale, and along with cellulose you get a variety of valuable chemical byproducts for sale to other industries.

With the economic development of the Industrial Revolution—and even the electronic revolution, despite the myth of the 'paperless office'—our demand for paper has grown dramatically. And relying on trees to make paper has brought destructive effects: loss of habitat, soil erosion, water and air pollution, and indirect impacts on industries such as fishing and tourism.

But there have been clear benefits as well: millions of jobs, revenues for local governments, etc. I am personally living proof of the economic benefits of the paper industry—my father retired a few years ago after over forty years with a large paper company. His hard work put food on the table, clothes on my back, and paid for much of my education.

While none of the harmful effects of making paper from trees was intended or planned, that doesn't lessen the need for a new design of paper.

Designing Paper for Cycles

Back to the question: What is the future of paper? To get at an answer from the perspective of Cradle to Cradle Design, let's look at the inherent design assignment.

We industrialized humans have designed ways of recording and communicating that are culturally physical, tactile, and aesthetically connecting to the printed surface. So a 'paperless' world isn't necessarily desirable. How might our design for the future of paper celebrate this cultural connection? What if we could design a paper that respects this cultural need and incorporates the latest electronic and material advancements, but also honors the importance of trees, forests, and habitat?

In many ways, the current product life cycle of paper treats it as a technical nutrient. Nearly 50 million tons of paper are recycled every year in the US. But with each trip through the recycling process the cellulose fibers become shorter, requiring the addition of 'virgin' pulp to maintain paper quality. At MBDC, we call this 'downcycling' rather than true recycling, because the material is in a downward spiral toward an incinerator or landfill.

And what about the biological metabolism? If cellulose is a 'natural' fiber, why not utilize composting to turn paper back into valuable topsoil? Unfortunately today's paper and printing processes aren't very compatible with treating cellulose-based paper as a biological nutrient, either. Ever catch a chemical whiff the first time you open a new magazine or newspaper? Most printing processes use inks, polymer coatings, and solvents no right-minded composter would want contaminating their backyard bin or community windrow.

A New Design

So what is the future of paper? How can we design a pleasantly tactile paper that can be cycled infinitely (cradle to cradle) without loss of quality.

Imagine a cradle to cradle paper system that utilizes a polymer film for paper and prints information with inks that can be easily and safely removed for true recycling. And polymer 'paper' that feels as good as cellulose-based papers.

These 'future' materials exist today. This system is indeed possible. It's a question of collaborating within a network of manufacturers, suppliers, printers, paper users, and materials reutilizers—to name a few of the roles—to create a true cradle to cradle life cycle for paper.

A Book That's Not a Tree

If you are reading this article, you probably know that Bill McDonough's and Michael Braungart's new book, Cradle to Cradle, went on sale a few weeks ago. The book itself is a physical attempt to further this discussion about optimal materials for paper: it is printed on polypropylene film. (That's why the first chapter is titled, 'This book is not a tree.' )

The full system we envision for the future of printed matter—easily removable and recyclable inks, reversible binding materials, polymer paper compatible with office printers and copiers, and simple reprinting on reclaimed polymer film—is still a ways away. Even the polypropylene Cradle to Cradle is printed on is currently only being downcycled commercially, though it is has excellent potential as a 'technical nutrient' for both its health and reutilization characteristics. If only the system were in place to recapture this value—over and over. Just think of the opportunity.

Cradle to Cradle is a signal of intention for the future of printed matter—an example of what it might look and feel like. You'll still enjoy curling up with Cradle to Cradle, leafing through its pages (surprisingly nice to the touch), and perhaps even carelessly reading it in the bathtub (it's waterproof!).

So when you pick up a copy of Cradle to Cradle, you'll find that it's meaning isn't just in what it says, it's also in what it is.

Oh, and it's a pretty good read, too.

Cradle to Cradle's polymer printing surface and water-resistant binding system together make up Melcher Media's patent-pending DuraBook technology.

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