Don't Write Off Paper Just Yet

Don't Write Off Paper Just Yet

9:23am May 28, 2015
The paper industry struggled in the past decade, but some sectors have fared better than others.
The paper industry struggled in the past decade, but some sectors have fared better than others.
Christopher Groskopf / NPR
  • The paper industry struggled in the past decade, but some sectors have fared better than others.

    The paper industry struggled in the past decade, but some sectors have fared better than others.

    Christopher Groskopf / NPR

  • Giant rolls of paper stacked at the Sonoco Paper Mill, which is then used to make containers for products such as Pringles potato chips or Planters peanuts.

    Giant rolls of paper stacked at the Sonoco Paper Mill, which is then used to make containers for products such as Pringles potato chips or Planters peanuts.

    Eric Weiner for NPR

There's a scene in the television series The Office that says all you need to know about the paper industry's image these days. That sad sack of a company Dunder Mifflin is launching an advertising campaign — and just in time, says one of the sad sack employees. Whenever he tells people he works for Dunder Mifflin, they assume the company make mufflers or muffins or mittens, but "frankly all of those sound better than paper, so I let it slide."

In the real world, paper doesn't appear to be faring much better. Not only are U.S. companies facing precipitous drops in demand; they're also confronting tough competition from the country that invented paper 2,000 years ago.

"China dwarfs what we're doing," says Thad McIlroy, a paper industry analyst, in a statement that is more literal than you might imagine. Chinese scientists have developed genetically modified trees that grow as much as 10 times as fast as natural trees. And the Chinese government pumps billions of dollars of subsidies into the country's paper mills. Meanwhile, global demand for many kinds of paper, such as newsprint, is in free fall.

"You just look at the decline, it's so rapid," says McIlroy. "Why would that stop? Why would people suddenly say, 'I just want to get that daily paper and sit down and read it over breakfast.' It's not going to happen again."

So it's easy to reach the grim conclusion that paper is dead, and will soon go the way of eight-track tapes and pay phones.

Not so fast. Like the character in a Monty Python skit, paper is "not dead yet." In fact, some industry niches are surprisingly robust. The Sonoco Paper Mill in Richmond, Va., is staffed seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and can still barely keep up with demand for its recycled cardboard.

"Business is strong for us," says manager Jonathan Anderson. "We've actually sold more than we can produce right now."

The mill has been around since the 1950s. It hasn't changed much since then. It's using the same equipment — not just the same kind of equipment but the very same machines. The process hasn't changed much either. First, the raw material — other people's trash — is loaded onto a conveyor belt, water is added, then it's all mixed together in a vat — "basically a big blender," says Anderson — and eventually this "slurry" is converted into a finished product: giant rolls of paper stacked end to end, which is then used to make containers for products such as Pringles potato chips or Planters peanuts. In other words, products not threatened by the digital revolution.

For some paper companies, the Internet has been a godsend. Every time you order something on Amazon, it arrives in a cardboard — that is, paper — package. Other paper companies are retooling to produce high-end stock used in photo books, like those made by Shutterfly and Snapfish. Paper companies are remarkably nimble and resourceful, yet, says Anderson, they still can't seem to get any respect.

"You talk to another professional and tell him you make paper and that's really not exciting, but people don't realize they don't get away from paper in their life, whether it's at home or even in the airport. It's not the cool thing, but it's the necessity, and it's not going away."

He has a point. Just look at the way paper has wormed its way into our culture, into our language. We paper over problems, no doubt caused by all those paper pushers, who leave no paper trail but turn out to be paper tigers.

In the rush to embrace all things digital, we sometimes forget that paper, too, is a technology — an extremely versatile one, says Nicholas Basbanes, author of On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History.

"It's resilient, it's resourceful, it's portable, it's foldable, it's strong if you want it to be strong. It can last 500 years if that's the goal, or if it's a hygienic tissue, maybe its life span is five or six or 10 seconds, but it's still doing its job, isn't it?"

There are, in fact, some 20,000 uses for paper but none as remarkable, and seductive, as the book. Basbanes recalls the time he found himself in the presence of a 500-year-old Gutenberg Bible.

"I darned near fainted when I was allowed to hold it in my hands. It was one of the great moments of my life to be able to touch where metal type bit into paper for the first time."

Would he have had the same reaction if he were looking at a digital copy of the Gutenberg?

Absolutely not, he says. "There's something about the real thing, and I think we're really having an appreciation of that as we dig a little further into the 21st century." Digital technology has many advantages — he loves his digital camera, for instance — but there's something "about the artifact, the material object, that makes people stop and say, 'Wow.' "

He's not worried about paper's future. A paperless society, he says, citing an old adage, "is about as plausible as a paperless bathroom."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Maybe you've noticed something at work that we've seen at our meetings here. Some colleagues who used to take notes on electronic devices like tablets are turning back the clock and using paper. We should remember, paper was a revolutionary form of technology 2,000 years ago, the iPad of its day, a big leap over state-of-the-art papyrus. This week, we're exploring whether paper is making a comeback or simply never left. We asked author and self-confessed paper-lover Eric Weiner to follow what we are calling The Paper Trail.

ERIC WEINER, BYLINE: OK, let's get this out of the way. Paper is - how do I put it diplomatically? - Boring. It's so first century, so irreparably, so tragically analog.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE OFFICE THEME SONG")

WEINER: No wonder when the producers of the TV show "The Office" were looking for a sad sack of an industry, they chose paper.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OFFICE")

STEVE CARELL: (As Michael Scott) What you might want to do is kind of a poppa bear, mama bear, baby bear thing. That might be kind of fun.

BRIAN BAUMGARTNER: (As Kevin Malone) Mama bear.

CARELL: (As Michael Scott) Who else?

WEINER: In this episode, executives at Dunder Mifflin are creating an ad campaign designed to raise the company's profile.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OFFICE")

JOHN KRASINSKI: (As Jim Halpert) I think it's great that the company's making a commercial because not very many people have heard of us. I mean, when I tell people that I work at Dunder Mifflin, they think that we sell mufflers or muffins or mittens or - and frankly, all those sound better than paper, so I let it slide.

WEINER: In the real world, the paper business doesn't appear to be faring much better.

THAD MCILROY: Right now, the only thing that's doing well is toilet tissue.

WEINER: Thad McIlroy is a paper industry analyst. Not only are U.S. companies facing drops in demand, they're also confronting tough competition from the country that invented paper 2,000 years ago.

MCILROY: China, oh, God, China dwarfs what we're doing.

WEINER: Literally dwarfs. Chinese scientists have developed genetically modified trees that grow 10 times faster than regular ones, and the Chinese government pumps billions of dollars into the country's paper mills. Meanwhile, global demand for many kinds of paper, such as newsprint, is falling.

MCILROY: You just look at the decline. It's so rapid, and to imagine that there's going to be any - like, why would that stop?

WEINER: If I said here's a million dollars, invest it in the paper industry, which segment would you invest in?

MCILROY: I wouldn't. I really wouldn't. I wouldn't touch it with a barge pole.

WEINER: So paper is dead, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL")

ERIC IDLE: (As Dead Collector) Bring out your dead.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Here's one.

IDLE: (As Dead Collector) Nine pence.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I'm not dead.

IDLE: (As Dead Collector) What?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Nothing. Here's your nine pence.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I'm not dead.

IDLE: (As Dead Collector) 'Ere, he says he's not dead.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Yes he is.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I'm not.

JONATHAN ANDERSON: Business is strong for us, so we're actually sold more than we can produce right now.

WEINER: Jonathan Anderson is the manager of the Sonoco Paper Mill in Richmond, Va. Like the character in the Monty Python script, he and his company are not dead yet, far from it. They've boosted production by 30 percent over the past decade and can barely keep up with demand for their recycled paper. The mill has been around since the 1950s. It hasn't changed much since then. They're using the same equipment - not the same kind of equipment mind you, but the very same machines. The process hasn't changed much either. First, the raw material - other people's trash - is loaded onto a conveyor belt, water is added, then it's all mixed together in a vat that, well, you wouldn't want to take a dip in.

ANDERSON: This basically would be like a big blender. You're adding a lot of water, and you're just taking mechanical energy to break that box down into fibers again, single fibers.

WEINER: It's like a river of sludge and cardboard.

ANDERSON: It's basically just water and fiber, and it turns into a slurry.

WEINER: That slurry is eventually converted into a finished product - giant rolls of paper stacked end-to-end used to make containers for Pringles Potato Chips or Planters Peanuts, products not threatened by the digital revolution. In fact, for some paper companies, the Internet has been a godsend. Every time you order something on Amazon, it arrives in a cardboard - that is paper - package. Other paper companies are retooling to produce high-end stock used in photo books, like those made by Shutterfly and Snapfish. Yes, paper companies are nimble and resourceful, yet, says Anderson, they still can't seem to get any respect.

ANDERSON: You talk to another professional and you tell them that you make paper, and that's really not exciting, you know? A lot of times they're like, well, I make pharmaceuticals or I make computers, and you say, well, I make paper, and they're like OK; but then people don't realize that they don't get away from paper anywhere in their life. And so I think it's not the cool thing; but it's the necessity, and it's not going away.

WEINER: Just look at the way paper has wormed its way into our culture, into our language. We paper-over problems no doubt caused by all those paper-pushers who leave no paper trail but turn out to be paper tigers; and don't forget, says historian and self-confessed bibliomaniac Nick Basbanes, paper is a technology, an extremely versatile one.

NICK BASBANES: It's resilient. It's resourceful. It's portable. It's foldable. It's strong if you want it to be strong. It can last 500 years if that's the goal, or if it's a hygienic tissue, maybe its lifespan is five or six or 10 seconds, but it's still doing its job, isn't it? It's amazingly resourceful.

WEINER: There are, in fact, some 20,000 uses for paper but none as remarkable and seductive as the book. Basbanes recalls the time he found himself in the presence of a 500-year-old Gutenberg Bible.

BASBANES: I darn near fainted when I was allowed to hold it in my hands. I mean, it was one of the great moments of my life to be allowed to touch where metal type bit into paper for the first time.

WEINER: Would you have had the same reaction if you were looking at a digital copy of the Gutenberg Bible? In other words...

BASBANES: No, no. I can answer that.

WEINER: ...What...

BASBANES: You don't even have to finish the question. The answer is no (laughter) not at all. You know, there's something about the real thing, isn't it? And I think we're really having an appreciation for that as we really kind of dig a little further into the 21st century. What is it about the artifact, the material object, that really kind of makes people stop and say, wow, handling the real thing as opposed to the virtual copy.

WEINER: He's not worried about paper's future. We may use less of it in coming years, but a paperless society, he says, is about as likely as a paperless bathroom. For NPR News, I'm Eric Weiner.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE OFFICE THEME SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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