Macerated vegetable fiber fitted into porous molds became the first-ever paper at the hands of Chinese Eunuch Ts’ai Lun in 105 A.D. From paper’s earliest history, when it helped spread ideas and knowledge throughout the world, to today, where an overabundance of paper trash leaves its mark on the landscape, paper’s invention signifies an enormous impact on society in multiple ways.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
Paper has influenced society throughout the centuries through:
- Sacred knowledge preservation for scholars and clergy.
- The creation of newspapers, periodicals, magazines and books to share knowledge.
- Allowing communication among people separated by distance -- letter writing.
- Production of hygienic disposable goods to help prevent the spread of diseases.
- Impacting landfills and dumps when not recycled.
The invention of paper quickly became a method for preserving knowledge. For more than a thousand years, this information largely resided in the hands of scholars and clergy, and rarely found its way into the hands of common people until the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. Improved paper production methods and the printing press made it possible for anyone to publish leaflets or books, allowing a wider dissemination of knowledge among the general populace. This diffusion of knowledge helped spur the intellectual advancements during the following centuries.
Hygienic Disposable Goods
Paper disposable goods, commonplace in many households, make it easy to serve unexpected guests on short notice with clean, disposable serving ware consisting of paper cups, plates and napkins. Paper towels also reduce the spread of bacteria and disease. By drying your hands with a paper towel after washing, you can reduce surface bacteria counts by 77 percent, while using a hot-air dryer increases bacteria by 254 percent.
Demand for paper has led to some serious effects on the environment. Nearly 35 percent of the trees cut down every year feed the paper industry with 9 percent of these trees sourced from old growth forests, a difficult-to-renew resource. Paper mills also represent significant sources of water and air pollution, releasing multiple greenhouse gases into the environment and discharging toxic bleach byproducts into the water table.
Trash and Recycling
The sheer volume of paper waste has helped drive efforts to handle trash more responsibly and spurred the development of the recycling industry. According to the EPA, paper makes up the largest single material in the municipal waste stream, accounting for 28 percent of all garbage thrown away. As of 2011, Americans recycled two-thirds of that waste, reducing the need for deforestation and reducing pressure on already critical landfill space. Nowadays, more than 140 paper mills now use reclaimed pulp exclusively to make new paper, drastically reducing the amount of energy and water needed to create new paper products.