Did you ever look at your cardboard delivery box and wonder how it was made, or what materials were used to make it? Trees provide us with a plethora of things, from paper, pulp, and tannins to dyes, gum, and corks. Surely you can’t make paper with just any ol’ tree, can you?
The trees used for papermaking fall into two categories: hardwood and softwood. Softwood trees like pines, spruces, hemlocks, and firs are excellent trees for paper. Hardwood trees, like poplars, birch, hickory, maple, and sweetgum, are for sturdier printing paper and magazines.
Trees are amazingly beneficial to humans, the environment, and wildlife. Let’s check out which trees can make paper and also discuss some alternatives.
How Many Trees Are Needed To Make Paper?
When you think of how thin copy paper is, you might not think it takes much to make. You would be right – a single piece of paper uses a tiny percentage of the tree. But how many people buy just a single piece of paper…. none, really.
Let’s put into perspective just how many trees are necessary to keep the world spinning. According to 2016 statistics gathered from Dartmouth University, in North America alone, each person used about 474 pounds of paper that year.
This seems like a staggering number, right? Well, take into consideration this includes ALL paper products – computer paper, newspapers, towels, toilet paper, cardboard boxes, corrugated paper, etc.
A single tree can make around 8,333 sheets of copy paper. That comes out to about 6% of a tree being used for each ream of paper (500 sheets).
You get the point… you need a lot of trees to provide paper products for everyone who needs them. So where exactly do paper industries get these trees from?
If you are interested in more information about the number of trees needed to let the paper industry thrive, check out this piece: How Many Trees Are Cut Down For One Piece Of Paper? The sheer amount is astounding.
Where Do Paper-Making Trees Come From?
Paper industries are not out to get your lovely backyard oak for their paper products. So where do they get the trees they need?
A lot of the wood used in the paper-making business comes from waste products of lumber mills. Wood scraps, sawdust, and woodchips are all sent to paper mills to be smashed into a pulp and eventually made into paper.
This is an excellent way to reduce wasting the unusable parts of the tree at lumber mills. For example, branches typically have no use in lumber, only trunks. They can chip those branches up and ship them off to a paper mill to put them to good use!
If they do not get the trees from lumber mills, they can also get the wood from some national forests.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, around 190,000 acres of trees are available for harvesting in various Forest Service lands. It may seem like a lot, but the 190,000 acres is out of 193 million acres of all Service lands (about 0.1%)
When the above two options are not used, paper mills can get trees by owning forest land. They will clear-cut the trees and use seeds to replant those trees. However, they will not be ready to cut again for about a quarter of a century.
Can Paper Be Made From Any Tree?
If you can make paper from any old tree, then why not use plantations with the fastest growing trees? Unfortunately, not all trees can be used for paper.
There’s a reason some trees are better for making paper than others. Pines, spruces, birch, and hickory are all popular trees used in the paper-making industry. Using trees of a lesser quality can cost more to make in both monetary value and environmental pollution.
The harder the process to make paper, the less useful the product. Some hardwood trees have fibers too small to make into proper paper products. Instead of wasting time and energy on these trees, paper industries prefer easier trees like those mentioned above.
This process creates less waste and uses lower energy to produce paper products. Humans have been making paper for a few thousand years. Surely they have the process down by now!
You can give the process a try yourself if it piques your interest. Kits like the Aoibrloy Paper Making Screen Kit can give you a head start on your journey. They have two different sizes to choose from, so you can decide how big you want your paper to be.
9 Different Trees Used To Make Paper
Now onto the good stuff! We’re going to start with softwood trees since they are the most prized trees for paper making.
Softwoods are so valuable for paper because they have long fibers in the wood. This makes for great paper and not-so-great construction materials.
Pine trees are conifers and evergreens, keeping their holiday-themed pine needles all year round. They are also softwood trees with long fibers good for paper making.
Even though these softwoods can be made into paper, pine trees aren’t the best choice because all pines contain pitch. This adds a few more steps in the pulping process some of the other softwood trees can skip.
According to the USDA’s Forest Products Laboratory, the most popular pine trees used to make paper include:
- Lodgepole Pine
- Eastern White Pine
- Southern Yellow Pine
- Jack Pine
- Ponderosa Pine
- Sugar Pine
Pine trees used in the paper industry will preferably contain as little heartwood as possible. This is the strong, albeit dead, inner part of the pine tree’s trunk.
If you are not careful, you could easily mistake a spruce tree for a pine tree. These trees are also evergreens, conifers, and softwoods with needles and cones.
One of the biggest differences between pine and spruce is the needles. Pine trees have clusters of needles connected to the pulvinus (sort of like a joint that the needles attach to), while spruces have only one needle per pulvinus.
Just like pine trees, spruce trees have a variety of different species, each with its quirks and characteristics.
Spruce trees are used for a ton of different things. They are a prized choice for Christmas trees, used to make wood for musical instruments, and, of course, paper! Pretty much all spruce trees are wonderful for the paper industry.
You can find hemlock trees all over the United States and in Canada. Only four species are native to North America, the rest find themselves at home in Asia.
The two big categories of hemlock are eastern and western. These names coincide with where the trees grow in the United States. No matter what species of hemlock, they are evergreen and coniferous.
Hemlocks are a lot harder to grow for sustainable purposes than other trees. They are old and wise, living as long as 900 years sometimes and take about a hundred years to mature.
There are several faster options than the hemlock.
Western hemlocks are preferred to eastern hemlocks because of the need for more bleach on eastern hemlocks. Its pulp is darker than the western hemlock and makes weaker paper.
There are fir trees and then there are true fir trees. True fir trees are what we are talking about here, not those fakers like Douglas-fir.
True fir trees provide similar paper quality to spruce trees. Pretty much any true fir can make good-quality paper.
There is one exception, the California red fir. Similar to Eastern Hemlocks, Cali red firs make for a darker pulp, which requires more bleaching. Most paper manufacturers want the process to be as fast, cheap, and convenient as possible, so they opt for the better fir trees.
White Cedar Trees
The last softwood tree on our list is the white cedar tree. And despite its name, it is not a cedar tree. You may know them by another name: arborvitae.
These evergreen trees enjoy wet, boggy areas with well-drained soils and lots of sun. Similar to hemlock, white cedar trees grow slowly according to Iowa State University.
Along with being good for the paper-making business, white cedars make fantastic privacy fences and windbreaks.
Speaking of paper-making, how do white cedar trees stack up against our other softwood trees so far?
White cedar is easy to make into pulp with little to no extra effort. However, each tree yields less fiber than the others because of the wood being less dense than, say, a spruce tree or pine tree.
Hickory trees range from the eastern United States and west until about the middle of the country. They are not commonly found any further west.
These hardwood trees are not used as commonly as the softwood trees mentioned above, but they can be made into printing paper and writing paper.
There are over 15 species of hickory tree, all of which belong to the walnut family. Who knew?!
Hickory trees are used more often for shipping boxes and corrugated boards, but the short fibers can be used for paper if they are in good condition. The process for making these walnut cousins into paper requires more energy than the softwoods, so it’s not highly sought after.
Aspen trees, Cottonwoods, and balsam poplars all belong to the willow family. These trees are all poplars and are rather popular in the paper-making industry.
Poplars do not make very strong paper, so they are often used to make newspapers and magazine papers with flimsy sheets. They are also used to make toilet paper.
This popular tree is both useful and nice to look at in the yard. We all know the quaking aspens that glow a brilliant yellow in the fall, but there are plenty of other species that look just as nice in your backyard.
However, you cannot plant these trees very close to buildings or other structures. The roots are very fast-growing and can damage foundations and sidewalks.
While poplars have decent wood for pulp making, they also have the benefit of being fast growers. They can grow up to five feet per year, which is significantly more than, say, an oak tree.
Poplars are typically between 50 to 80 feet tall at maturity, making them a good choice for both hardwood products like lumber and plywood, as well as softwood products like paper.
According to North Carolina State University, there are around sixty species of birch trees in the Northern Hemisphere. Like the other hardwood trees on our list, birch trees are deciduous, meaning they lose their leaves in the fall and winter.
For paper-making, birch trees are similar to poplar trees. They are a hardwood tree, so the fibers are small, so the paper is less durable than a softwood tree.
Popular paper-based products from birch trees include books, wrapping paper, and container boards such as those used to fill spaces in shipping boxes.
Birch trees do best in colder climates, where the snow covers the ground for most of the winter. You will not see a birch tree next to a palm tree very often!
Ah, maple syrup, the best companion to pancakes and waffles. Maple syrup does come from maple trees. As do a few paper products!
In terms of paper production, maple trees most closely resemble the paper from birch trees. The wood is often used to make container paper, books, and wrapping paper.
Being a hardwood tree, maples are used for more than just paper products. They’re also made into furniture and railroad ties according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Maple trees do not get as much use as some of the softwood trees mentioned earlier. They are also slow growers, making them more undesirable than fast-growing trees for paper making.
What Are The Best Trees To Make Paper Out Of?
Now that we have gone over the nine most popular trees that are made into paper, let’s figure out which one is the BEST to make into paper.
Spruce and fir trees are the best choice when making paper. They are moderate- to fast-growing trees, making them more renewable than some of the other choices. Spruce and true fir trees also require little energy to make into pulp.
No extra removal techniques or additional bleaching are required to turn these trees into paper. Since both spruce and fir are softwood trees, they’re also not highly sought after for furniture, cabinets, or other manufactured wood products, making them more available for paper products.
What Are The Worst Trees To Make Paper Out Of?
As we mentioned before, not just any old tree can be used to make paper. It has to have long enough fibers to form paper properly, and the trunk must not contain a lot of heartwood.
So, which trees do paper manufacturers avoid harvesting? The least desirable trees include:
- Bald Cypress
- Douglas Fir
- Red Cedar
The reason these trees are so undesirable for making into paper is because of the lengthy (and expensive) process the wood must go through before it is viable for paper manufacturing.
The wood must undergo an alkaline process and get pre-treated with steam to be fit to make it into paper.
The additional resources and time needed to convert these trees into paper are just not worth it, especially when the finished paper is typically lower in strength and quality than other options out there.
Is Paper Always Made From Trees?
According to the University of Massachusetts, southern white pine is the most common source of paper pulp in the United States.
While some companies try to be sustainable with their paper-making processes, they still need a ton of trees to produce the necessary amount of paper. That means clearing hundreds of acres of trees just to produce a few months’ worth of paper.
Is there anything out there we can use instead of trees to make paper? The answer is a surprising yes!
Bamboo, hemp, and cotton are all alternatives that are used to make paper. While this sounds like excellent news, you may wonder why we are still cutting down trees to make paper.
One reason is hemp was illegal in the United States until 2018 when hemp was legalized at the federal level. It’s a great alternative to paper, but it needs to gain some traction and momentum to affect the market.
If you would like to test out hemp paper, the Green Field Paper-Hemp Heritage® Mini Ream is a great place to start. It can be used in laser or inkjet printers and is the stark white color we are used to.
A second reason is the U.S. is a little stubborn. India and China are the major producers of pulp made from bamboo, but the U.S. continues to use trees. Why? They’ve always used trees, and the paper processing plants are made for trees, not bamboo.
Seems like a lame excuse, but it’s true. To change all the harvested forests into bamboo forests would cost a lot of time and money. Not to mention, changing the manufacturing process from wood to bamboo would require money, time, and new resources.
Paper Can Be Made From Kenaf
If you have never heard of kenaf, it is understandable. Few people know about this possibly world-changing crop.
Kenaf is part of the Hibiscus genus and is native to Africa. It is cousins with okra and cotton and enjoys warm, tropical climates and shivers at temperatures below 50℉.
Kenaf is very useful in the wood and paper industry. This plant combines both softwood and hardwood properties. Remember, softwood is better for paper products, while hardwood is better for lumber, furniture, and cabinets.
This multi-use plant has a hard inner part of the stem that is made of hardwood-like short fibers, while the outer part of the stem is long fibers like softwood trees.
The most beneficial aspect of the kenaf plant is that it grows to maturity in less than six months. Its height at maturity can reach up to 20 feet, but most grow between 8 feet and 14 feet.
Comparing this to trees, which can take 25 years or more to reach maturity, it’s a no-brainer to use kenaf instead of trees.
The only states putting time into researching and using kenaf are Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and the Southeast United States, according to Purdue University.
There’s more to making paper than many people think: the type of tree used, the need for additional bleaching or steam, the type of paper you can make, and the quality of the final product are all things to think about when choosing a tree for paper.
Each tree has a unique type of wood. One might be better for magazines, while another is better for copy paper.
Overall, the 9 most common trees used in the paper industry include:
- True Fir
- White Cedar
Trees are a staple to the health of the environment. We are conscious now more than ever of our impact on the planet, which is why paper alternatives are being researched.
Bamboo, cotton, hemp, and kenaf are all gaining traction to replace trees in the paper manufacturing process.
Trees provide us with so many benefits and are truly one of the most important organisms on the planet. The next time you see a tree on your morning commute or your lunchtime walk, maybe you will smile and have a little more appreciation for all the things trees do for us.
If you’re interested in finding out more about different types of trees, what the best ones are for your landscape, or how to grow a tree from a seed, check out our the rest of our website to start your tree journey today!
Krishna, P. J. (2003, August). Transgenic Aspen Trees with Altered Lignification: Good News for Pulp and Paper Industry. ISB News Report.
Maminska, R. T. (2017, October). Limits and perspectives of pulp and paper industry wastewater treatment – A review. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 78, 764-772. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1364032117306561
Seth, M. K. (2003). Trees and their economic importance. The Botanical Review, 69, 321-376. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1663/0006-8101(2004)069[0321:TATEI]2.0.CO;2
Sinclair, P., & Walton, J. (2003, September 17). Environmental reporting within the forest and paper industry. Business Strategy and the Environment, 12(5), 326-337. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/bse.376
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