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Paper: It’s Not From Trees Anymore

Reusable, recyclable, and using no electricity, a new heat-printed paper substitute may finally get rid of the thousands of tons of dead trees we continue to use every year, despite the fact that we have computers.

Paper: It’s Not From Trees Anymore
A new kind of paper isn’t made from trees, and doesn’t need electricity to display text. Is this the future of printing? Flickr user blmurch

The promise of a paperless office has never quite materialized. Although recycling is up since 2005–16 million less tons of paper, equal to 400 miles of trash barges, no longer enter landfills each year–we’re still burying 26 million of tons of it each year. This growth lead the American Forest and Paper Association to posit its theory of paper growth in 1993: another 80,000 tons of paper are consumed each year for each billion dollars added to the gross national product.

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Yet reusable paper has always held out the (distant) promise of printing without the waste. The technology never caught on. In the 1990s, Xerox’s famed PARC research lab created an ink that faded within a few days (the useful lifespan of many printouts), as well as reusable plastic sheets called Gyricon. Both proved impractical or expensive.

Now, the nonprofit Tawainese Industrial Technology Research Institute has invented, and begun manufacturing, a reusable paper that may actually take off. Although intended for short-lived uses and unbound publications for now, the technology creates clear text and imagery on sheets reusable as many as 260 times at very low cost. The i2R e-Paper is a a liquid-crystal layer on flexible, thin plastic sheet. A thermal device prints a crisp 300-dpi resolution image in color or black and white, and it doesn’t require any electricity to run once it’s printed. At about $2.00 per sheet, it’s less than a penny per print, no ink necessary. The whole thing–plastic, pigments and electrodes–can be recycled.

For now, says Janglin Chen, general director of ITRI’s Display Technology Center, the technology is aimed at replacing short-lived items like advertising banners, corporate visitor ID badges, transit passes, and museum or parking lot tickets, according to Gizmag. “It’s a fact that a significant portion of daily office printed papers will be discarded in days or weeks after use,” said Chen. “i2R e-Paper’s re-cycle and re-use capabilities, positive effects on the environment and low cost of production are paving the way for mass acceptance of green e-paper technologies.”

i2R e-Paper is unlikely to make the “print” button obsolete for paper from trees, but it could be a step toward cutting out waste and realizing the paperless office of the indefinite future.

[Hat tip Wall Street Journal]

About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.

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