Sales of print books have declined in an age of ebooks. On my street, I’m 99 percent sure that the only people who still have a subscription to the again-on-the-verge-of-closing New Jersey newspaper, the Star Ledger, are the elderly couple across the street. I’ve wondered if I should still ask students to “submit their papers” when they never print them out but email them to me.
Paper might seem obsolete but, in many ways, its many uses are only being discovered. Items made from paper can be strong enough to provide shelter; a bonus is that many are made from recycled materials and can themselves be recycled after use. Here are some:
1. A Bike Helmet
Paper Pulp Helmets are not only made from recycled newspapers. They are disposable, recyclable, waterproof and highly affordable, with a price tag as potentially low as $1.50. Three students from London’s Royal College created the helmets by grinding up newspapers and blending them with water to make a pulp that is then molded into a helmet.
Barclays is in discussions to invest in the paper helmets, and the London government and a bike share program in San Francisco have shown interest in using the helmets. Look out for them — they could actually be available as early as Spring of 2014.
2. A Bicycle
What else to ride while wearing a paper bike helmet than a cardboard bike, the Alfa? Israeli engineer Izhar Gafni spent two years folding and refolding cardboard to see what would make the strongest shapes. The result is a single-speed bicycle with spokes, rims and a frame all made from cardboard. The 28-poound prototype, which can support a rider up to 485 pounds, has tires made from old car tires and pedal cranks made from discarded plastic bottles.
Gafni’s cardboard bike costs only $9 to make and, as rumor has it, might only cost $20. However, a company called Cardboard Technologies has started a crowdfunding campaign to mass produce the bikes with a much higher price tag — $135.
3. A Boat
In the late 19th century, people created boats — canoes, rowboats, racing shells — from paper. You see some examples of “cellulose-based naval architecture” in museums in the U.S. and read about the know-how and craft that goes into making a paper boat.
Tyvek is used for mailing envelopes and also for disposable protective clothing. But it can also be made into clothes, from dresses to coats, which can be recycled. They’re perhaps not something to wear everyday or in all seasons (winter, for instance), but paper is potentially an eco-friendly alternative to other materials.
5. Solar Cells
MIT researchers have created solar cells that can be printed out on paper or cloth at a low cost. The printed solar cells can be folded 1,000 times and still generate power. They can also be laminated to protect them from the elements. While they only provide enough power now for a “small electric gizmo,” the researchers are working to increase their capacity. They envision people printing out solar cells cheaply and then fastening the solar cells to a wall, thereby “drastically reduc[ing] the costs of solar installations.”
Researchers from Spain have figured out a way to turn the waste from paper mills into bricks. Not only does the waste not end up in a landfill, making the bricks saves resources and money as they require less time in a kiln to be fired. The paper bricks also have low thermal conductivity, meaning they would provide good insulation for a home or other building. The current paper bricks are not as strong as traditional ones, but researchers are working on ways to incorporate other waste materials — from the beer, olive or biodiesel industries — to improve them.
7. A Building
German architects Ben and Daniel Dratz have designed an entire building — a 2,000 square foot office space in Essen, Germany — from 550 bales of bound recycled paper from local grocery stores. While the building is only temporary, it has so far withstood rain and wind. The bales can be stacked as high as 100 feet safely though, as one commenter observes, which might be about as high as you want to go in building with paper.
Paper is a material with some limitations, but it certainly has many more uses than bringing us the news.
Photo via Richard Masoner/Cyclelicious / Flickr