We hear all sorts of things about the terrible effects the paper-making industry has on our world, from the trees being cut down, to the practices of those cutting down those trees, to the paper-making process itself. Two art professors, Eric Benson and Steve Kostell, at the University of Illinois have set out to change that with the creation of their paper-making research lab, Fresh Press.
Fresh Press is all about exploring the collaboration between farmers, artists, designers and academics to revitalize the slowly dying paper manufacturing industry in the Midwest. Their work aims to reduce paper-makings environmental impact in three ways in particular:
- Providing an incentive to local farmers to reduce carbon emissions caused by burning crop waste
- Minimizing the emissions caused by the transportation of wood-pulp paper from forest to pulping mill to paper distribution
- Blending agri-fiber and wood-pulp fibers while reclaiming and reusing campus office paper waste. (A 47% emissions decrease produced with virgin wood-pulp fiber paper according to their mission)
Agri-fiber, also known as agriculture fiber, are classified into three main categories: fibers grown specifically for use in paper products, agricultural residues diverted from the farming wast stream, and industrial residues leftover as byproducts of other manufacturing processes.
According to an interview done in January, Fresh Press has already produced papers using corn stalks, soybean vines, tomato plants, prairie grass, rye and sunflower stems. A majority of their materials come from the Sustainable Student Farm, with nearly one thousand prairie grass seeds being planted for the research lab.
During the late 19th century, all of these materials were researched for paper-making until a tree-pulp process was perfected in 1890.
“We’re going back to that and saying maybe they shouldn’t have stopped researching those fibers,” Kostell said. “Prairie grass makes some pretty amazing paper, we’ve found.”
Benson and Kostell make quite the combo to head up the Fresh Press lab. Benson has an expertise in environmentally sustainable design, and Kostell has been making paper since 2001 while incorporating the art into his teachings for art and design. Together they team together to form the “microbrewery of paper,” as Benson called it. “We follow the model where if it’s in season and harvestable, we use it.”
Additionally, the paper-makers avoid using chemicals in their process to lessen their impact on the environment even more, and even collect rainwater to cook their fibers!The non-acidic nature of their materials, paired with their lack of chemical usage, aids in sustaining the paper’s whiteness over time. They lighten the color of their papers through “ultraviolet bleaching” (or simply put, letting their vines sit out in the sun), as well as mixing in naturally white cotton fibers from a textile manufacturer’s waste stream.
You can hear more about Benson and Kostell’s paper-making process below…