Making papers specifically for drawing and painting requires quality materials to ensure that they are strong, archival, and beautiful. As with everything we produce and consume, there is an environmental impact. However, the key resources used in fine art production can largely be considered ethically sourced. Here we consider what impact different art papers have on the environment.
Cotton plants require vast amounts of water, and in some places around the world, have been known to drain rivers for farming. That said, the fibres used in cotton paper production are a by-product of the textile industry and would most likely otherwise go to landfill.
The cotton linters used in cylinder mould-made paper are taken from cotton seeds following ginning; the process undertaken to extract longer cotton fibres, used for making textiles. What remains on the seed after this process is too short to be used for this purpose which is why they are classed as a pre-consumer waste.
Handmade cotton rag papers are made from post consumer fibres, such as old t-shirts. They have the potential to achieve the lowest carbon footprint during production. For instance, the pulp of Jackson’s Eco paper is dried slowly in the sun, and the water used to turn the rags into pulp is run off to irrigate the fields neighbouring the papermaking factory. Because cotton paper pulp is naturally pH neutral the water does not impact upon the surrounding environment.
It’s easy to automatically think that cutting down trees is not particularly kind to the environment. However the majority of trees used to make paper are farmed and sustainable. The trees you find in a tropical rainforest are not suitable, so papermaking does not contribute to their destruction. Fine art paper mills mainly use virgin pulp imported from West Europe because the quality of the fibres means that the resulting paper can withstand heavy treatment, such as being scrubbed or laden with watercolour washes. Trees for papermaking are grown specifically for purpose, in a way that ensures consistent supply. Countries such as Finland, Sweden, Canada and the US are all growing trees faster than they are felling them. The wonderful by-product of this is the rate of photosynthesis that these farmed trees are capable of, feeding off carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and combining it with sunlight and water to feed itself with sugar, and to feed the air, and us, oxygen. Without growing trees for papermaking we would inevitably reduce the number of trees being planted and also consequently the rate of photosynthesis.
Virgin paper production and paper recycling are fully dependent on one another, as this allows production to remain sustainable. It is not possible to only use recycled pulp for fine art use, because the re-pulping process necessary when recycling can shorten the fibres, reducing the strength of the end product. Additionally, when making recycled paper, there is very little certainty of the various chemicals that might be present in the pulp. Paper that has had a previous life serving non-fine art purposes is likely to contain lignins or bleaches which will prevent the resulting paper from being archival. When recycled fibres have been used to make drawing paper, some virgin pulp has to be added to compensate for the fibres that are no longer usable as well as to minimise the percentage of impurities. Additionally, recycled paper requires additional processes such as de-inking, degreasing and the removal of additives. Each of these comes with its own set of challenges, whether it’s the toxic sludge accumulated from de-inking or the undermining of the strength of the end product as a result of grease in the pulp. Ultimately, these problems can only be solved with solutions that require more energy and more chemicals. This is another reason why recycled paper isn’t always the most environmentally friendly choice.
Water is a vital component in nearly all stages of papermaking, including pulping, sizing, cleaning and sheet formation. If water is to be returned to source it needs to be carefully filtered to remove any additives such as lignins and pigments, that may be harmful to local plant and river life. Wastewater treatment is categorised into primary, secondary, and tertiary treatments. Primary treatment uses sedimentation to remove suspended solids from wastewater, forming sludge. Secondary treat-ment removes organic matter using biological processes. Tertiary treatment provides final polishing to remove any other contaminants required before discharge into the receiving environment. Those three standard steps are altered or augmented depending on the nature of the facility and its processes.
In the UK, paper mills such as Two Rivers (Exmoor Water) and St Cuthberts (River Axe) are situated by a source of fresh flowing, naturally filtered water. All materials used are chosen to ensure that the mill does not harm the surrounding environment. The mill returns the water it uses to the river, free from any papermaking additives, often purer than when it was first extracted from the source (the thriving population of freshwater trout in the Rive Axe are testament to the cleanliness of the water).
The principal source of energy for paper mills is natural gas and electricity, although coal, oil, biomass and solar energy are sometimes also used. The production of most fine art paper is not as energy efficient as the production of low cost packaging papers, for example. This is because the cylinder mould-made process is much slower. Fine art paper mills favour this slower process because it allows heavier weights of paper to be made, and it also successfully ensures that the paper made is robust and has a surface suited to painting, drawing and printmaking. There are only three mills making fine art paper, out of nearly 70 mills in total in the UK, so while it may not be a very energy efficient industry, the net energy usage accounted for by fine art paper manufacture is comparatively very low.
Is Paper Vegan?
Most papers are sized – that means, a substance is added to pulp in production to control the absorbency of the paper, optimising its properties for drawing and painting. This is most commonly done with a chemical called alkyl ketene dimer. Only some papers are externally, or tub sized. This is an additional process that strengthens paper, and this is when gelatine (or sometimes a plant-based alternative) is used. Gelatine is made of collagen extracted from the skin, bones, and connective tissues of animals. In the case of fine art papers this gelatine sizing comes from cows, and is a by-product of the meat industry.
Even if only plant-based and synthetic additives are used to size paper, it doesn’t always mean that it can unequivocally be classified as vegan, as most papers come into contact with woollen felts during the sheet formation process. When synthetic felts are used instead, the surface texture of the paper is much more regular, more mechanical looking and generally considered less attractive. As well as this, there is the added concern of those felts gradually releasing micro-plastics as they inevitably wear with use.
Overall, the production of fine art papers does not have a big ecological impact in comparison to the production of other papers, such as packaging or printer paper. Thankfully, because it is hard-wearing and made to last, we can use it and value it for longer.