The Paper Cycle

Last week, just as I was working on a new cardboard chair, there was an article in the Chicago Reader called The Floating Forest, about the strange trip undertaken by our wastepaper. Thirty years ago, most of America's recycled paper was processed domestically, including a number of large mills throughout the Midwest. Beginning in the nineties, a Hong Kong entrepreneur, Cheung Yan, began filling empty shipping containers with wastepaper and shipping them back to China. There, her factories turned them into cardboard to make boxes for TVs, computers, cellphones, and so the cycle continued.

Baled wastepaper is now an internationally traded commodity. In 2008, prices plunged as the global recession put a crimp in consumer spending. Newspapers, another large paper consumer, have seen their readership shrink as news moves online. Recently, however, prices are back up in the face of Asian demand. With one ton trading at about $100, New York has seen a rise in the theft of baled paper. China, whose forest cover suffered over the last fifty years of industrialization, has a seemingly insatiable demand for the stuff. The paper-less society promised by the internet hasn't materialized, and, worldwide, consumption doubled between 1980 and 2000.


It seems to be a net gain for everyone: China gets raw materials; American scrap companies and collectors get jobs; our trade deficit with China closes a little; and trash is kept out of the landfill. But our paper is making a 10,000 mile round trip, slurping up a lot of fuel and chemicals along the way. And, when it is recycled, it can only move down the quality chain, transforming refined papers into low-quality cardboard.

All of this nonsense is partly responsible for my fascination with cardboard furniture. It seems to be a local, logical use for one of our most abundant waste streams. Above all, for the guerilla maker it is cheap and requires few tools to work with. It is well adapted to lightweight, portable designs, temporary solutions, and is found everywhere.

Two weeks ago, I posted about an on-going experiment in bent cardboard. This line of thinking got me researching paper-mâchéanother technique for making strong thin shells out of wastepaper. One thing led to another, and soon I was winding my way down some weird, papery seam of the internet.

Before plastics were invented, paper-mâché was used to make a lot of household goods -- baskets, boxes, chairs, even pianos. In 1772, Englishman Henry Clay patented a process for making sheet with paper pulp, adhesive, and linseed oil, making lightweight, waterproof doors and body panels for stagecoaches. In the mid-1800s, Aaron Jennens and T.H. Bettridge formed a housewares company in Birmingham, England. Their process involved pressing paper pulp in molds and forms, creating compound curves. Once dry, pieces were  japannedheavy coats of shellac-based black lacquer were applied, dried under heat, then polished to a created a flawless surface. Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and Persian cultures also have strong paper-mâché traditions, making everything from snuffboxes to coffins.

Japanned tray on faux-bamboo stand. Via Arthur Smith Antiques.
During the Civil War, Elisha Waters of Troy, New York, began experimenting with paper boats. Using an existing canoe as a form, he layered manila paper, adhered with shellac. Once dry, and separated from its form, the sides were braced with some cedar gunwales, resulting in a light, cheap boat. Refining the process, he turned it into a successful business, producing lightweight racing shells for crew teams. The process is easy enough to recreate, if a little time-consuming. The Waters enterprise eventually expanded into paper domes, including an observatory at West Point. In 1901, the whole enterprise burned to the ground. The two partners dies shortly thereafter, and the company and its techniques did not survive.

Bishop paper canoe.
Beloit College Observatory.
Advances in metal-stamping technology, enameling, plywood production, and plastics eventually killed off the tradition of japanning, and now old paper-mâché furniture pieces are prized antiques. And now, our modern reliance on plastics (which eventually replaced nearly every conceivable use for paper-mâché) has become an environmental liability.

There are innovators out there pursuing new methods of paper-mâché. One of the most promising, and easy to execute, is papercrete. Mostly pursued by enthusiastic DIYers at this point, papercrete is still a fringe building material. Basically, you mix up shredded paper, with sand, cement, and water, at a ratio of 60-20-20. The resultant material is stronger in tension than traditional concrete, due to the interlocking paper fibers, and insulates to about R-2 per inch (the same as softwood pine). It can be formed into blocks, panels, and be poured in place. Earthship Biotecture has developed a dome construction method using cement-saturated rags laid over a rebar armature.

Papercrete carriage house, via Green Home Building.
Earthship dome, via Madame Kunterbunt.
Modern designers are starting to re-examine paper-mâché. Paper pulp can be pressed into molds; laid over forms; or made into snarky little puns. Unfortunately, most folks seem to be working in non-structural applications, designing small lamps or table top pieces instead of chairs, tables, and trays. Everyone is thinking small. I could imagine a whole vertically-integrated cycle, where a big retailer like Target recycles its shipping boxes into furniture it then sells in its stores, turning a waste stream into a profit center.

Paper pulp furniture by Debbie Wijskamp, via GadgetSin.
Until that happens, I am trying my own little experiments. Start small and local and see where the discoveries lead. Stay tuned for the next installment of bent cardboard, coming next week.