National Geographic : 1997 Mar
stirs a mix of kozo fibers and neri-a mucilage derived from mallow root that prevents the fibersfrom clumping. After draininga film of interlockingfibers, he places the new sheet of paper on a stack (bottom left). Families in this vil lage are related through intermarriage,a custom that once guarded the secrets of washi. The Magic of Paper tightly guarded mill. It is a cardboard box filled with delicate computer parts in a warehouse, the same discarded box a homeless man fashions into temporary shelter. As an industrial commodity paper ranks among giants such as petro leum and steel. Modern mills worldwide produce a third of a billion tons of paper every year-three times the total weight of the world's produc tion of motor vehicles. In the U.S. alone a 170-billion-dollar industry makes enough paper each year for two billion books, 24 billion news papers, and some 372 billion square feet of corrugated cardboard. Today's business is a far cry from the ancient craft of papermaking as practiced down the centuries by highly skilled artisans like Sakamoto. Contemporary papermakers still use the essential recipe of their prede cessors-water and cellulose fibers. Paper forms when atoms in the fibers bond with those in the water molecules. As the water is drained through a screen, the water molecules tug at the fibers with a force that enmeshes them so tightly new bonds form between the fibers to create a solid surface. Throughout the U.S. I saw modern paper machines the size of strip malls being run by men in booths that looked like the bridge of the starship Enterprise. Each machine thundered and steamed, a howling mass of rollers, ducts, and pipes. On one end water containing a small amount of wood pulp cascaded onto a conveyor belt that looked like an immense piece of window screen. A ribbon of paper as wide as a two-lane highway rolled out the other end. Those highways often dead end as waste in landfills, taking up more space than any other garbage. In addi tion, environmentalists charge, the paper business denudes forests and pollutes air, land, and water by spawning poisons like dioxins as an industrial by-product. "Right now, the industry is one of the world's worst polluters," says Joe Thornton of Columbia University's Center for Environmental Research and Conservation. But some innovators are working to solve these problems. By recycling paper and its industrial wastes or even by creating new building materi als from used paper, this essential commodity can be made more environ mentally sound.