Scientists have developed a coating for paper using nanotechnology, allowing them to print, erase, and reuse paper up to 80 times without recycling. This inkless printing, which can be erased with heat, has vast potential to reduce the paper industry’s negative impact on our environment.
Environmental Issues from the Paper Industry
Despite the number of people glued to their electronic devices and companies going paperless, the EPA reports that paper still exceeds nearly all other recycled items combined. As the fifth largest energy and water consumer, the pulp and paper industry harvests approximately 35 percent of the world’s trees. The paper making process requires a significant amount of fuel and water to extract the pulp from the raw wood—leaving that water contaminated by harmful chemicals.
A number of hazardous by-products are used and released during the papermaking process, such as dioxin and phosphorus. For instance, releasing an excess of phosphorus—typically considered a nutrient—tends to create an imbalance in the life cycle by over-feeding plants, which then tend to deprive the animals of necessary oxygen within that aquatic environment. Likewise, ink and toner also contaminate the water and soil during their manufacturing and usage, damaging wildlife habitats., Trucking––and shipping paper from place to place––creates air pollution.
Despite efforts to increase environmental efforts through recycling, paper products comprise approximately 40 percent of landfills and paper production creates almost one percent of total carbon emissions. In fact, the paper recycling process itself causes more environmental damage through the water and energy required for repulping, but in particular through the ink removal process.
Thus, the scientific community has been working to develop technology for paper that can be reused multiple times to reduce environmental damage from paper production and recycling further. For years, researchers have tried to create a chemical coating for paper that would change colors when exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light. But previous projects have struggled, not only with efficacy issues of readability and reuse but also with affordability and the ability to render their paper products safe from hazardous chemicals.
Amy McElroy is a contributing editor and writer for Rewire Me. She has written for print, radio, and online publications such as The Bold Italic, The Billfold, Noodle, Cosmopolitan, BlogHer, and others. Her website, amyjmcelroy.net, lists her editorial services. She’s on twitter at @amyjmcelroy. Amy balances her work at the computer by teaching yoga and fitness.