The Story of Paper

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pages of paper book
Photo by Gabriele Diwald

Christy VanArragon and Joshua Leo look at the history and future of paper – one of the most important materials in history.

Voice 1

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Christy VanArragon

Voice 2

And I’m Joshua Leo. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

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Voice 1

Every day more people in the world use computers and other technology to communicate. Many books are now available on the internet. People write emails, and text messages, instead of letters. In many places, people do not even use physical money to pay for things any more. All these technologies are replacing one of the most important materials in history: paper. Today’s Spotlight is on paper, its history and its importance in the world today.

Voice 2

Many people believe that paper started with the ancient Egyptians. However, this is not exactly true. Instead, 5000 years ago, Egyptians used a material called papyrus. They made papyrus from the stems of river plants. They put these flat pieces together, to create a larger flat sheet. Ancient Egyptians wrote on these sheets like paper.

Voice 1

But the paper we know today did not exist until 3000 years later. It was created in China. Before the invention of paper, people in China would write on pieces of bone, bamboo or costly cloth. No one knows who first invented paper. But history does tell us about one man who improved the process. It was in the year 105. A man named Cai Lun began to experiment. He used many materials to make paper. He took bark from the outside of trees, pieces of net normally used to catch fish, and pieces of cloth rags. He broke these materials down into very small pieces. He put all these materials into a large container of water, to mix them. Then he removed this material, using a screen. When he pressed out the water, all that was left was a thin sheet of paper. He presented this new way of making paper to the Emperor. The Emperor was very happy and gave Cai Lun much money.

Voice 2

Paper quickly spread to other areas of the world. In the Middle East, people made paper thicker. They also made it easier to produce quickly. From the Middle East, paper travelled to Europe and then the Americas. For many years paper cost a lot of money and time to create. But in the 19th century, people began to use steam powered machines to create paper from wood. Paper is still made from wood today in large factories around the world.

Voice 1

Paper changed the way people lived. Long ago, when paper was difficult to make, people only used paper for special purposes. Religious leaders would write holy words on it. Government officials would write important laws on it. Explorers drew maps of the world on it. But normal, common people did not use it. As paper became easier to make, it was used for more things. People wrapped it around gifts. Anyone could use paper to make notes and write down information. Paper was also used as money.

Voice 2

Today people use paper for even more things. Paper cloths clean up dirt. Many products are sold in cardboard boxes made from paper. People drink water and other drinks out of paper cups.

Photo by Jon Tyson
Voice 1

But this creates a new problem – the problem of waste. When we are done using paper, it does not just disappear. Some paper can be recycled – it can be made into new paper. But a lot of paper simply becomes waste, or garbage. It is burned for energy, or stored in large landfills. Paper does biodegrade, or break down over time but it does not happen quickly. As the paper breaks down it releases harmful gasses into the air. In the United States, paper makes up one third of all waste. In just that country, that is 85 million tons per year!

Voice 2

But this is not the only problem that paper can cause. In the past, paper included materials from cloth, waste paper, and other fibres from plants. But today, most paper comes from trees. Many of these trees come from very old forests around the world. Today, only 20 percent of the world’s ancient forests still exist. Around the world, every two seconds, people cut down more than 4,000 square meters of trees. And many of those trees became paper.

forest
Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel
Voice 1

These ancient forests cannot be replaced. Forests provide oxygen for animals and humans. They store the gas carbon dioxide, which can cause global warming. Cutting down trees can also destroy environmental systems. The birds, plants and animals that live there may also die. Some companies plant new trees when they cut down forests. But it takes a long time for new trees to grow. Often, these newly planted trees are all the same kind of tree. This is called a monoculture. A monoculture forest can get diseases easier. If one tree gets sick, all the same kind of trees get sick. When forests have many different kind of trees, they can resist disease easier.

Voice 2

Creating the paper can also cause environmental problems. Large paper factories use chemicals to make paper white. They also use a lot of water to create the paper. The chemicals pollute the water. If the factories release the water without removing the chemicals, the water can then pollute rivers and lakes. The chemicals in the water can also cause health problems.

Voice 1

So what can be done to help reduce the number of trees being cut down for paper? What can a person do to change their paper impact on the world?

Voice 2

The first step is to try to use less paper. Could you clean with a cloth instead of paper? Can you use less paper in your office or home? Can you re-use the paper used to cover a gift?

Voice 1

Next, look at the kind of paper you use. Most paper can be reused in some way. Old paper can be turned into new paper through recycling. By recycling paper like this, less trees have to be cut down. It takes less energy to recycle paper than it does to make new paper from trees. Are there ways to recycle paper where you live?

Voice 2

Many companies make products from post-consumer materials. This means that instead of cutting down trees to make the paper products, they use recycled paper. Buying these recycled paper products can save a lot of trees, water and energy.

Voice 1

In many places, people can also buy paper that comes from forests that are sustainably harvested. This means that when the trees in these forests are cut down, people make sure that it will not damage the environment of the forest.

Voice 2

Paper has been an important part of history. It has made many things possible. And even though people are using less paper, it is still very important to us today. But it is up to us to make sure that paper does not harm the world. It is our responsibility to give it a positive future.

Voice 1

The writer and producer of this program was Joshua Leo. The voices you heard were from the United States. You can find our programs on the Internet at www.radioenglish.net. This program is called ‘The Story of Paper’.

We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.

Question:

What kinds of paper do you use every day? Do you use a lot or a little? Write your answer in the comments below.

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