B2 READING. HOW PAPER IS MAKING A COMEBACK

TASK. Read the following text and choose the option (a, b or c) which best completes the sentences according to the text.

At the time of its invention, life was hard if you had something you needed to remember. So when a government official finally invented paper in AD105 in China, it was a big deal. It involved mashing up a mixture of cloth, bark and nets with some water to form a paste. The new invention was a hit with the Emperor – though initially it was only used for wrapping precious objects. But soon enough, paper began to change the world. 

In the Middle East, the introduction of paper coincided with the Golden Age of Islam, allowing scholars to record their breakthroughs in science. It took more than a thousand years to arrive in Europe, where people had to write on the skins of calves, goats and sheep. Europeans slaughtered millions of sheep to make “parchment” with their skin – a product available to the wealthy only. When large-scale paper production finally reached Europe, it made mass literacy possible in the region for the first time. 

Today, in an age of computers, you could be tempted to predict the end of this ancient wonder material. But though there has been a significant decline in the demand for so-called “graphic paper”, like newspapers and books, the paper industry is growing like never before. From napkins to cardboard boxes, it’s hard to imagine modern life without it. We are definitely moving towards a cashless society with credit cards, fingerprint recognition devices, or whatever they may invent, but a “paperless” society? Out of the question. 

In actual fact, paper seems to be winning the battle against plastic. Canada recently approved a ban on certain plastic items for next year, while the EU has plans to eradicate some of the most notorious by 2025. India has gone further, already prohibiting single-use plastic altogether. Many businesses have already announced they will be replacing throw-away plastic items with paper versions. But, is plastic the villain and paper the hero? Plastic may very well be polluting our planet, but paper is not as “green” as it is portrayed to be. 

The process of making paper starts with the raw wood. First, it is turned into a brown paste. Then, the second step is the “bleaching” – chlorine dioxide is added to achieve a high level of brightness, appearing vividly white because it reflects a lot of blue light. In Europe, the industry uses ozone since chlorine dioxide has a much bigger environmental impact. This is a step which could be skipped altogether, if only we were happy with using slightly-less-white paper. 

After the bleaching is over, there is the technical challenge of treating the cocktail of chemicals that the water contains, so that it can be eliminated safely. This process is rather expensive and in some countries the fines are not heavy, so some paper factories skip this and simply discharge straight into the local water supply, where it’s highly toxic to fish and other wildlife even at concentrations of 2%. 

Another issue is the trees. Each year, the global paper industry is fed by more than 100 million hectares of forests, an area around the same size as Egypt. However, though we’re often told that saving paper saves trees, this is not necessarily true. In countries where forests are not sustainably managed, important habitats can be destroyed. But in responsibly-managed areas, sometimes using more paper can, ironically, lead to more trees because many companies have an internal policy of planting several trees for each one that is cut down. In the US, 1.7 million trees are planted each day by the wood industry, according to the USDA Forest Service.

Perhaps the biggest game-changer in the paper world has been recycling. In the US, the world’s gross recycling leader with 64 million tonnes per year, it accounts for nearly 40% of the nation’s total paper supply. In fact, in 2018 the demand for recycled paper exceeded the available supply there. Meanwhile over in Europe, EU countries have the highest recycling rates in the world. Incredibly, 80% of the 40 million tonnes of paper used was recycled in 2018. Yet, recycling is not the answer if it is not done well enough. Millions of tonnes of recyclable materials were rejected last year because they were incorrectly sorted out or had food contamination. As it turns out, it costs more money to “re-sort” than to simply reject whole bins and send them to be incinerated or buried in a landfill.