How Many Trees Are Cut Down For One Piece Of Paper?

Trees icons in origami style

Journals, notebooks for school, official documents, dictionaries, novels, handwritten notes; paper is everywhere in our lives. Even as technology becomes the norm, we see paper products everywhere we go.

One tree makes over 8,000 pieces of paper while approximately 1/500th of a tree is cut down for every piece of paper. Americans use over 850,000,000 pieces of paper per year, equalling over 106,000 trees. Most paper is produced from softwood trees such as pine trees, spruce trees and fir trees.

Keep reading to discover more about the paper industry. What you learn may surprise you!

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How Is Paper Made From A Tree?

There’s no doubting most paper is made from wood pulp. Maybe you will remember an elementary school teacher telling you to write in pencil to erase your mistakes so it would sacrifice no more trees than necessary. Just us? Hmm, okay. 

Anyway, the process is quite simple, and it’s old. It is derived from one created in China back in the 100’s A.D. and has evolved into the paper, and the processes used today.

How Is Wood Pulp Made Into Paper?

Wood pulp texture

To start things off, raw wood gets processed into pulp. Then comes the combination of wood fibers and chemicals, which can happen in one of two ways.

Mechanical Pulping 

Literature from Princeton University tells us softwood trees lend themselves better to mechanical pulps. The process grinds down wood fibers more than the chemical method will. 

Therefore, the paper produced from mechanical pulping, the less common of the wood pulping methods, is a thinner, weaker paper. Think of newspapers or phone books (talk about something old), and you will get a sense of the thin type of paper created through this process. 

Chemical Pulping

A more common method, chemical pulping, uses both soft and hardwoods and creates most of the paper products we know and love today.

Much of the naturally glue-like substance found in pulp is eliminated through this process, which results in a much stronger paper.

Everything from fine printing paper to paperboard and writing paper, found in journals and notebooks, is a byproduct of the chemical pulping process. Since wood fibers are not simply being ground down, there is a wider range of paper types you can create using chemicals to break down the fibers.

What Comes Next In The Paper-Making Process?

Making mulberry paper, decorating with leaves and flower. Urban career in thailand

The initial pulp is very wet and needs to be dried to create sheets of paper. 

Funny enough, this part of the process has changed little since the ancient Chinese practices that spearheaded the idea of turning wood into paper. 

Wood pulp is sprayed onto large screens, which then go through many rounds of drying processes. First, the pulp is squeezed until it is about halfway wet and appears to be more of a damp paper than a liquid pulp. 

Eventually, the pulp gets pressed to remove even more water, and the paper is truly coming into its final form.

To create different textures, thicknesses, and tones, the paper may go through different treatment processes to arrive at its desired state.

Finally, the paper product is rolled into huge reels of paper before being sent off to be cut and organized. Paper can turn into journals, envelopes in which we buy printer paper, and so many more things. Maybe the lined paper that was treated becomes spiral notebooks for children to practice their alphabet, and blank white paper is waiting for official statements and apostilles to be sent between governments. 

The opportunities are endless for this product made from a tree not so long ago.

Can Paper Be Made from Any Tree?

As we briefly mentioned above, while discussing the pulping processes, hardwood and softwood are turned into paper.

Most of the wood that gets turned into pulp comes from softwood trees. These trees are coniferous trees such as pine, spruce, and fir, among others.

Coniferous simply means ‘cone-producing’ and it is these types of seed-producing trees that earn their classification as softwood trees. 

Essentially, however, yes. Certain types of wood may have wood fibers that break down into a pulp better (hence softwood trees being the preference), but all wood can technically be turned into pulp to create paper.

Which Type of Trees Are Commonly Used To Create Paper?

The Forest Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, helps to provide a great snapshot into what types of trees are commonly used to create paper.

Softwoods like pines, spruces, hemlocks and firs stand among other conifers such as bald cypress, Douglas-fir, larches, red cedar, white cedars, and redwood to create the portfolio of trees most commonly turned into paper.

While softwoods are the majority, a good 85% or so of the trees selected for this process, it leaves us with a solid amount of hardwood trees also being utilized. 

Hardwood trees that turn into paper include poplar, birch, maple, beech, sweetgum, tupelo, and many others. Unlike paper made from softwood, we typically use wood produced by these trees for hardboards, materials inside shipping boxes, and other less ‘refined’ uses.

How Long Does It Take To Make Paper From Trees?

Well, if we start from the beginning…

Growing trees can take between 10 and 20 years just to have a reasonably sized organism that can produce enough pulp to create paper. 

Turning wood into pulp and pulp into paper, however, can take significantly less time. It is possible to re-create this process in short periods if you have the right materials.

How Much Paper Is Wasted Every Year?

Paper waste for recycle

Middle Georgia State University tells us that the average American family throws away up to 13,000 separate pieces of paper per year. Mostly packaging, junk mail, old notebooks, and other undesired paper products, it is unbelievable how quickly that adds up.

According to the University of Southern Indiana, Americans use over 850,000,000 tons of paper per year. We just tried to convert it to pounds for you and got a number wider than the screen, but it is nearly 700 pounds of paper per person. Certainly, not all of that paper gets to stick around, right?

How Much Paper Can One Tree Produce?

One tree makes over 8,000 sheets of paper, which sounds like a lot but is less than you’d expect. 

Think about a copier case of paper, which normally has about 10 reams (packs of paper) at about 500 pieces each. You are already at 5,000 pages and over half of a tree was used to create that single box of paper. 

If you work in an administrative office, school, or any other facility heavily reliant on paper usage, the number of trees used to create the paper you are using could be much more than you expect. 

Suddenly, those elementary school teachers telling us not to waste paper don’t seem so off-base. 

Let’s circle back to the amount of paper an average American family throws away a year, just in junk and packaging materials. When it’s all said and done, over a tree and a half is wasted.

What Is Tree-Free Paper Made from?

Using tree-free paper is a great way to work toward the future and sustainable steps. 

Using fewer trees contributes to lessening deforestation, not to mention that some of these tree-free options are pretty darn cool!

CalRecycle informs us that woodless paper sources fall into two categories:

  1. Crops that are specifically intended to produce paper
  2. Residue from agricultural crops also repurposed into paper

If you have been searching for woodless paper options, alternatives to the norm, this section is just for you!

Kenaf 

Hibiscus cannabinus also known as kenaf

This tropical plant was traditionally used for sacks, ropes, and other sorts of cords. Now, however, it is being used as a treeless way to create more paper. 

This plant is also used to create paper’s distant cousin- canvas. This is not surprising, as sacks and canvas have similarly textured patterns, and you can use the fibers in similar ways. 

Kenaf has become more sought after in recent years for its properties and uses beyond paper-making. Only time will tell if this becomes a staple in the paper world.

Hemp 

Hemp has become very popular in recent years for its versatility. 

Seen in everything from soaps and hair care products to being the primary material in backpacks and clothing items, this one does it all, including paper!

Hemp crops grow exponentially quicker than trees do, and they can produce a pulp that results in a similar paper all the same.

The infrastructure has not developed completely, meaning it is a bit more expensive to create paper using hemp. However, this process is so much better for the environment and all the trees involved.

Currently, hemp paper’s use falls under specialty use most often, as opposed to commercial production for things like notebook paper or printer paper. Hopefully, as this option advances, we see hemp paper more readily available.

Straw From Rice, Wheat, Or Rye

More agriculturally focused crops often discard some of the straw growing on parts of the plant. The part humans rarely eat. 

We often give this straw to animals, but there are so many other ways to use this part of the plant. 

The fiber in straw is comparable to that of wood fiber, and the pulp is used to hand-make paper in a unique, eco-friendly manner.

This is not a new concept, however, and is a standard practice already in many Asian countries that emphasize using all of their resources.

Essentially, instead of burning or plowing most of the straw from agricultural crops, it could instead replace a fair amount of the tree-based paper we so often use at this point.

Coconut

Coconut? Yes, coconut!

But coconut is not at all similar to the wood of a tree or the fibers in straw or kenaf!

This may be true, but the husk of a coconut has plenty of fibers you can use to create something useful. Instead of discarding the husk of a coconut, once the water and fruit have been removed, it can help to produce a very useful, thick textured paper.

Contrary to how newspaper paper works, as a flimsy product, coconut paper could prove quite strong for projects where you use markers or water-based writing utensils. 

You may have even seen this type of paper before and had no idea what was behind the final product. 

The hair between the fruit and husk of a coconut is the perfect texture to create paper. When pieces of the hair remain, they add dark spots to the paper, which can give it a worn, authentic feel. 

If the overall ‘vibe’ of the paper doesn’t matter to you, these little strands of fortitude highly reinforce your paper. 

Stone 

Yes, you read that right, too. Even crushed stone can turn into a sort of pulp-like substance. This substance can also create paper.

Stone paper notebooks and products like this Pictostone Executive Notebook are making a lot of headway in the journal space these days. 

The paper is smooth but somehow manages not to smudge. It is both strong but has a softer appearance, like if we combine the strength of coconut paper with the look of tree-based paper and the softness of hemp paper. It’s a 3-for-1 you can get behind!

We might go as far as to say this is the next big thing in the paper, at least for those who prefer handwritten notes jotted down in planners or the feeling of putting pen to paper as a way to create artistic works like poetry or short stories. 

Knowing your paper comes from one of the myriad origins, other than trees, is not only a good feeling but a cool one. It is amazing how many of our natural resources can create such a similar product, and in such different ways.

That’s A Wrap!

Now that you have learned a little more about what goes into the making of paper, how paper is made, and other ways to create tree-free paper, we hope you are intrigued. 

Try some tree paper alternatives, and see what you think! It’s a fun way to experiment with something we use oh so often in daily life, all while helping the planet, too!

We sincerely hope that you enjoyed this piece. As you continue along your tree journey of learning and exploring, take a moment to consider how you can help save some of those trees we all love so much.

For now, though, we will see you next time. Thanks for reading!

References

Fratzl, P. (2018). Wood made denser and stronger.

Gurav, S. P., Bereznitski, A., Heidweiller, A., & Kandachar, P. V. (2003). Mechanical properties of paper-pulp packaging. Composites Science and Technology, 63(9), 1325-1334.

M’hamdi, A. I., Kandri, N. I., Zerouale, A., Blumberga, D., & Gusca, J. (2017). Life cycle assessment of paper production from treated wood. Energy Procedia, 128, 461-468.

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