Paper has revolutionised the way the world functions. However, many people are unaware that we actually interact with two very different types of paper on a daily basis. Cotton and wood fibre paper are completely distinct in their manufacturing, uses, strengths and weaknesses, and life cycles.
Cotton paper is made entirely from cotton fibres. It is often called rag paper, and people have been using it for centuries. Cotton paper is stronger and more durable than wood fibre paper, and is also more expensive, costing up to 20 cents per sheet, while wood fibre costs about half a cent for one page. Cotton paper is not chemically treated, and cotton fibres are stronger than wood fibres, making cotton a superior if more expensive material.
Wood Fiber Paper
Wood paper is made from wood pulp. It is the weaker, cheaper alternative to cotton. Wood paper only became prevalent in the mid 1800s. Once it became available, more people had access to written documents, and global education began to improve. Today wood fibre paper is produced all over the world in much greater quantity than cotton paper.
Cotton paper is made from 100 per cent cotton rags. These are put through a shredder and mixed with glue. The mixture is then moulded into sheets. Wood fibre paper is made by chemically breaking down soft wood into a pulp, then bleaching the mixture and pressing it into sheets. This process softens wood and separates strands of fibre from the pulp mixture. Chemicals leave the paper acidic and significantly weakened, however they are necessary in order to make wood pulp malleable enough to be pressed into paper.
Cotton paper is stronger and more durable than wood fibre paper. Wood paper is weakened by the chemical processing it undergoes, and wood fibre is inherently more brittle than cotton. Cotton fibre paper is difficult to tear by hand, but wood fibre paper easily crumples and rips.
Cotton paper absorbs ink and displays print better than wood fibre paper. However, wood fibre paper is overall more practical for daily use. Wood fibre paper is cheaper to produce because wood is a cheaper and more plentiful resource than cotton.
If stored properly, cotton paper can last for centuries without becoming discoloured or noticeably worn. For each percentage point of pure cotton that a sheet of paper contains, it will withstand deterioration for one additional year. For example, paper used for legal documents is generally 25 per cent cotton. This paper can be expected to last without deterioration for at least 25 years. Wood paper lasts only a few years before it begins to crumble and turn yellow.
Pure cotton paper is used for important documents that cannot deteriorate, such as archives and bank notes. Cotton is also used to make currency. Expensive stationary is sometimes made from cotton paper. Almost all of the paper that we use today for filling our printers and jotting down notes is made from wood fibre.