By Nicholas A. Basbanes
December 8, 2013
Predictions of a paperless society have been bandied about for close to half a century, driven by an unbridled faith that technology would eliminate the need for something as old-fashioned as record-keeping on pulverized cellulose.
There is no denying, of course, that seismic changes have taken place or that they are everywhere apparent.
Technological changes have certainly taken a toll on the pulp and paper industries, especially in the production of newsprint, which has been particularly hard hit. Between 2000 and 2010, as newspapers lost readers of their print editions, some 120 paper mills were closed in the United States and Canada, with a loss of 240,000 jobs, or about a third of the paper industry's workforce.
International Paper Co. announced in September that it was closing a mill in Courtland, Ala., resulting in the loss of 1,200 jobs and reducing the company's paper-making capacity by 950,000 tons of "uncoated free sheet" paper a year.
The publishing industry, meanwhile, has been hedging its bets by making sure that many of the new books it issues between hard covers are released simultaneously in electronic editions, including, ironically enough, my own recently published book, "On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History."
But does all this mean a paperless society is imminent? Hardly.
An association of paper historians based in Britain has estimated that there are 20,000 identifiable uses of paper in the world today. One traditional papermaker, P.H. Glatfelter Co. of Pennsylvania, redefined itself 15 years ago by concentrating its efforts on niche markets. Today it makes, by its own reckoning, paper for 1,000 different commercial products, including U.S. postage stamps, Twinings tea bags, Hallmark greeting cards, Bicycle playing cards, Band-Aid bandage components, Carlsberg and Heineken beer labels, and Reese's Peanut Butter Cup wrappers.
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