The Story of Paper

Clive Darr, via Flickr

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

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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.

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.

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.

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 This program is called 'The Story of Paper'.

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

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What kinds of paper do you use every day? Do you use a lot or a little?


Avatar Spotlight
said on April 25, 2011

after reading this story, i remember when i was a child, about 5 years old, i have only a black notebook and a pencil to go to school. My “Paper” in that time is my house wall, cement ground,ground, banana leaf and charcoal or wooden stick is used to write.
until i learnt caculation, my father made a sand board to me. I wrote numbers on it and earse and write again many times without paper.
In my company also many state-company, everyone uses paper very waste, they often do not check mistake carefully before printing,don’t have document management system so everything using paper,... It wastes material and time.

Avatar Spotlight
said on April 26, 2011

Hello all people in the beautiful world and good afternoon. Today when i read and write letters i always use my computer earlier when i studied in school and university i often use notebooks which was created from paper. And i think in future this problem will resolved because people oftener use their computers notebooks and planshets instead paper. Therefore amount of paper that use will reduce.

Avatar Spotlight
said on May 01, 2011

I hope so GElezniyDen…I think same.

Avatar Spotlight
said on May 14, 2012

Bamboo is a kind of tree so the bamboo is able to make paper instead of the other trees or not ? because it is easier to grow than the other trees. Paper that used only one side , I normally still use it for the other side . Thank you Spotlight for let me know the impact of using a lot of papers and the value of it .
From Camboidia

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said on August 21, 2016

i use paper for my study. most of paper i use are books, notebooks.

Kaleb Kolaibi's avatar
Kaleb Kolaibi
said on August 25, 2016

I think that the humanity of knowledge revelation was passed in 3 main stages;
1- Creating of paper.
2- Clearing the printing device.
3- The Internet.
I’m using the paper everyday ;
1- Reading the Bible, by Arabic and English.
2- Writing by notebook, actually sometimes because I’m using the Internet (mobile and computer) more and more.
3- The money.
God bless you

Kaleb Kolaibi's avatar
Kaleb Kolaibi
said on August 25, 2016

2- “Creating ” the printing device.

Avatar Spotlight
said on August 25, 2016

Surely, all of us can reduce paper impact on the world, we can save environment including the precious rain-forests that are so important, irreplaceable as for people as for animals life. Using paper should be limited in many different sections, for example in industrial production, in the offices and so on. I suppose recycling old paper has been regarded as a necessity nowadays. Buying and using products made of recycled paper can save a lot of trees, water and energy at all events. People around the world should try to take care of keeping our planet clean, healthy and beautiful too!
Thanks Spotlight for interesting topic!

Severino Ramos da Silva's avatar
Severino Ramos da Silva
said on September 17, 2016

from: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) (Severino Ramos)
To: spotlight programme
Subject: answer to the question above
Date: Saturday 17, September 2016
São Paulo SP Brazil

Dear Christy VanArragon and Joshua Leo:

At first, I want to thank you to bring us readers and learners of English more one great article. Thanks!

At home I use White papers in my printer to print some grammar lessons in English from internet. No, I do not. I use a little paper pages a week.
Besides, I want to tell you that in Pernambuco where I was born there is a big factory of paper. I was a employee of this big factory. So, I had worked there for a year.
The material used to make the sheet of papers in this factory is bamboo. And the process to make the paper is very interesting.
This factory is located at Rua Vereador Sócrates Regueira Pinto Souza, 183 centro Jaboatão dos Guararapes - cep 54100-000 Pernambuco Brazil. If you want to know more about my city where I was born, please just search at
My Pernambuco State is a very interesting place to live and to visit. Spotlight:  Severino, Why did you move there? Because I lost my job at the paper factory. So, I was unemployed and I received an invitation from a friend of mine to live and to work here in São Paulo. Quickly, I got a job and I enrolled at the Mogi das Cruzes University to study to become a nurse.
Finally, I would like you and the rest of the spotlight team to know my Pernambuco. There are many clean beaches, the food is delicious, people are very pleasant, honest, friendly, and etc. Also, the hotels are not expensive with four and five stars.

Yours regards ,
Severino Ramos

Avatar Spotlight
said on January 09, 2020

This program talks about a subject that has concerned me for years. I already thought about how not to use paper as we use in Brazil. Everything must be on paper and must show a seal, signature and stamp of a government official. You only exist if you have a document saying you exist, have a name, a job and a home. Brazilians had the habit of using a bag only to carry documents.
When I first met a computer, I thought my paper problem was gone. Big mistake!
Now smartphones and their applications seem to end the overwhelming use of paper.
So help us God ...