Paper From Farm Waste? Art Professors Show Us How

In a bid to reform an industry with a high environmental impact, University of Illinois professors make paper from corn, soybean vines, and prairie grass.

With book sales on the rise, Steve Kostell and Eric Benson have figured out ways to make paper from alternative sources. (Photo: Reuters/David Mdzinarishvili)

Liana Aghajanian is TakePart's weekend editor. Her work has appeared in ForeignPolicy.com, BBC.com, Los Angeles Times, and TheAtlantic.com.

In a bid to make the paper industry a little more environmentally friendly, two art professors have created a project using plant fibers and agricultural waste to manufacture alternative paper products. 

Eric Benson and Steve Kostell, from the University of Illinois School of Art and Design, are collaborators in Fresh Press, an agricultural fiber papermaking research studio. They've already been able to make paper using cornstalks, soybean vines, tomato plants, and even sunflower stems—and that's probably just the beginning. 

"Any long-fiber plant can be a viable paper material," Kostell told the university's website.

With nearly 4 billion trees being cut down for paper each year, book sales rising, and paper being “the single largest component of the garbage that goes into landfills,” according to the NRDC, the advances are welcome news. 

Kostell, who has been making paper for more than a decade, incorporates the art of papermaking into his design curriculum at the university. Benson is an expert in environmentally sustainable design. The two combined their interests to find a solution to what they say is typically an “environmentally unfriendly method of papermaking.” The university's Sustainable Student Farm supplies them with agricultural waste. 

“We call ourselves the microbrewery of paper,” Benson told the university's newspaper last fall. “We follow the model where if it’s in season and harvestable, we use it.”

The Daily Illini also published a 10-step list of ways the professors go about producing the paper with prairie grass, which includes soaking it in water overnight and cooking it on a burner powered by propane, although Benson and Kostell “are looking to use renewable energy sources in the future,” the paper wrote.

While the two may be on their way to a breakthrough that could change where our paper comes from, they're also interested in tilting the entire papermaking process to environmentally stewardship. The professors lighten the color of their eco-paper through a method known as "ultraviolet bleaching," which involves letting it sit out in the sun. But they're also interested in the variety of color different kinds of waste can produce. 

“There are all these beautiful tones that people could be using,” Kostell said. “Especially if they’re not doing much but printing black ink on it.”

Watch the papermaking duo produce sustainable paper at the Fresh Press lab here.

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