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Opinion Op-Ed

A paperless society? Not so fast.

Predictions of a paperless society have been bandied about for close to half a century, driven by an unbridled faith that technology would eliminate the need for something as old-fashioned as record-keeping on pulverized cellulose.

There is no denying, of course, that seismic changes have taken place or that they are everywhere apparent.

Technological changes have certainly taken a toll on the pulp and paper industries, especially in the production of newsprint, which has been particularly hard hit. Between 2000 and 2010, as newspapers lost readers of their print editions, some 120 paper mills were closed in the United States and Canada, with a loss of 240,000 jobs, or about a third of the paper industry's workforce.

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International Paper Co. announced in September that it was closing a mill in Courtland, Ala., resulting in the loss of 1,200 jobs and reducing the company's paper-making capacity by 950,000 tons of "uncoated free sheet" paper a year.

The publishing industry, meanwhile, has been hedging its bets by making sure that many of the new books it issues between hard covers are released simultaneously in electronic editions, including, ironically enough, my own recently published book, "On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History."

But does all this mean a paperless society is imminent? Hardly.

An association of paper historians based in Britain has estimated that there are 20,000 identifiable uses of paper in the world today. One traditional papermaker, P.H. Glatfelter Co. of Pennsylvania, redefined itself 15 years ago by concentrating its efforts on niche markets. Today it makes, by its own reckoning, paper for 1,000 different commercial products, including U.S. postage stamps, Twinings tea bags, Hallmark greeting cards, Bicycle playing cards, Band-Aid bandage components, Carlsberg and Heineken beer labels, and Reese's Peanut Butter Cup wrappers.

Net sales for Glatfelter have grown from $579 million in 2000 to $1.6 billion last year, and while that number is impressive, it is dwarfed when compared with the $27.8 billion in sales recorded in 2012 by International Paper, an increase of $1.8 billion over the previous 12 months for the world's largest paper manufacturer.

In Franklin, Va., a paper mill has been repurposed for the production of "fluff pulp" used in the making of disposable diapers, wipes and feminine hygiene products, where sales are robust.

With respect to the big picture, worldwide production of paper and cardboard in 2011 stood at about 400 million metric tons, more than half of it used in China, the United States and Japan.

The idea was that paper would be made obsolete by such things as email, electronic data storage and the Internet, technologies that government agencies embraced early on. But here's a telling statistic: In 2011, according to InfoTrends, a research firm that specializes in digital imaging and document management, local, state and federal governmental offices used 122 billion sheets of paper, an amount equal to about 400 sheets for every person in the United States.

That's just in the official bureaucracy. A broader set of figures, compiled by International Data Corp. and released in July, reports that worldwide volume from digital hard-copy devices in 2012 totaled 2.98 trillion pages, down slightly from 2011, but sufficient to cover the surface area of New York City 237 times. And the average American, according to the American Forest and Paper Assn., uses more than 748 pounds of paper a year.

In the simplest of terms, paper is a composite of water and pulverized cellulose fragments screened through a sieve and dried. But the Chinese, who introduced paper to the world some 2,000 years ago, regarded it as one of their outstanding inventions, and the world seemed to agree.

When Marco Polo returned from the Far East late in the 13th century — about the same time some of the earliest mills in Europe were being established at Fabriano and Amalfi in his native Italy — the Venetian traveler spoke enthusiastically about how the great Kublai Khan had mandated the use of paper currency throughout his realm. Elsewhere in his travels, Polo marveled that the Chinese made certain articles of clothing from paper and used it to fashion offerings to be burned at Buddhist shrines.

For more than 200 years, paper was the most efficient way to bundle gunpowder and a projectile into one compact cartridge, and its use as a wrapper for the "evil weed" — tobacco — has had consequences that continue to resonate.

Surprisingly strong and resilient, its portability made possible the modern bureaucracy; it can be folded every which way, and when used as an absorbent, it serves a plenitude of hygienic purposes — yet another Chinese idea.

The 21st century may well prove to be the digital century, but it seems misguided to set the obituary of paper down in cold type. Not just yet, in any case.

Nicholas Basbanes' most recent book, "On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History," was published this fall.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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