While some attribute the revolutionary contribution of paper to the West, scholars generally trace its creation to Imperial China some 2,000 years ago.
In 105 A.D., Ts’ai (or Cai) Lun, a court eunuch, presented his newly-developed paper to Emperor Hedi of the Eastern Han Dynasty, who commended him for his accomplishment.
Ts’ai Lun’s process was relatively straightforward: He (1) broke the bark of a mulberry tree (and bamboo) into fibers, (2) mixed them with hemp, shredded cloth rags and water, (3) mashed the mixture into a pulp, (4) pressed out the water, and (5) hung the resulting sheets under the sun to dry.
Historical sources now list 105 A.D. as the year paper was invented, while some regard Lun as the “Father of Paper.”
However, some are skeptical of paper as being invented by just one person.
“It seems highly improbable that some lone genius stumbled upon the idea by him- or herself,” said Mark Kurlansky, author of “Paper: Paging Through History.”
The Atlantic, which spoke to Kurlansky in 2016, noted that the exact origins of paper are unknown.
The outlet cited Chinese schoolchildren learning about Ts’ai Lun, “perhaps because great stories work better with a central hero.”
If there is no one inventor, archeological evidence still points to China, with some suggesting that paper could have been invented as early as 200 B.C. Apparently, samples of older paper have been unearthed in Dunhuang and Khotan — both Silk Road cities — as well as Tibet.
Due to their arid climate, the said areas allowed the pieces of paper to survive for the next 2,000 years without decomposing completely. Interestingly, some of the samples even had ink, corroborating data indicating that the medium has been around much earlier.
After Ts’ai Lun presented his invention, the Chinese eventually started to use it for writing. Woodblock printing was invented in 600 A.D., while China saw its first printed newspaper in 740 A.D.
However, the Chinese also had other uses for paper. During the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 A.D.), they used paper to make tea bags, while during the Song Dynasty (960 A.D. – 1279), the government used it to produce the world’s first known banknotes.
Papermaking eventually spread from China to other parts of the world in various ways. Neighbors such as Korea, Japan and India primarily learned about the industry through trade and diplomacy.
The Arabs, on the other hand, learned papermaking from Chinese prisoners, establishing their own industry in 793 A.D. Europe acquired the industry much later, with Spain learning to make paper around 1150 due to the crusades.
Papermaking appears to have a different history in the Americas. Mayans reportedly used a similar material made from tree bark called “amate,” the earliest sample of which was found in Mexico in 75 B.C.
European papermaking eventually reached Mexico in 1575 and Philadelphia in 1690. Then, in 1844, German Friedrich Gottlob Keller and Canadian Charles Fenerty, who worked separately, announced their invention of a machine that extracted wood fibers and made paper from them.
Paper has since evolved to become a staple material of modern life. And while many are now shifting to digital for environment conservation, paper continues to be of essence at home, school, and work, among other venues.
As the world’s largest producer of paper, China has also become its leading recycler. Before 2018, it bought materials — including mixed paper — for recycling from the U.S.
In a 2017 example from the BBC, a cardboard box from Ningbo, south of Shanghai, is used to package a laptop that is shipped to the U.S. The box is then thrown into a recycling facility in Seattle before it is shipped back to Ningbo, to be processed as another box.
However, Chinese citizens have continuously called for a stop in the practice, arguing that recyclables arrive in unmanageable quantities. The Chinese government consequently enforced policies such as Green Fence, National Sword, and Blue Sky, which ban certain types of scrap and implemented more stringent contamination standards.
Now, Chinese companies invest in American recycling facilities, CNBC reported.
“Changes in Chinese policies have really focused energy and attention — and I’m also glad to say innovation — on the topic of recycling,” Peter Wright, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management, told the outlet.
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