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Design professors use native fibers, farm waste to make sustainable paper

Eric Benson and Steve Kostell
Photo by
L. Brian Stauffer

Steve Kostell, left, and Eric Benson, professors in the School of Art and Design, hope to change the paper industry with their Fresh Press project, using indigenous grasses and agricultural waste to make paper products.

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1/30/2014 | Dusty Rhodes, Arts and Humanities Editor | 217-333-0568; rhodes8@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — While most artists aspire to have their best work hung on the walls of galleries and museums, two professors in the University of Illinois School of Art and Design have a different dream: They hope their work might provide corrugated cardboard, laminated building materials, or maybe the insulation hidden behind the art gallery walls. Eric Benson, a professor of graphic design, and Steve Kostell, a professor of art and design, are collaborators in Fresh Press – a research project focused on using indigenous fibers and agricultural waste to make environmentally friendly paper products.

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VIEW VIDEO | Illinois art professors talk about their hopes to revolutionize the paper industry with paper made from prairie grasses and agricultural waste. | Videography by L. Brian Stauffer; produced and edited by Dusty Rhodes

They have already produced a variety of papers using corn stalks, soybean vines, tomato plants and sunflower stems, as well as rye, Miscanthus giganteus and big bluestem prairie grasses. “Any long-fiber plant can be a viable paper material,” Kostell said. In fact, many papermakers experimented with similar fiber sources through the late 19th century, losing interest in these crops only after a method for using tree pulp was perfected in 1890.

“We’re going back to that and saying maybe they shouldn’t have stopped researching those fibers,” Kostell said. “Prairie grass makes some pretty amazing paper, we’ve found.”

Kostell has been making paper since 2001, and incorporates papermaking in the art and design curriculum at Illinois; Benson’s expertise is in environmentally sustainable design. Fresh Press merges their respective specialties into a concept that they believe could eventually transform the paper industry.

“We’re really interested in changing the system of papermaking,” Benson said. “Currently, the system is based on harvesting trees, and we find that to be a very environmentally unfriendly method of papermaking.”

“What we want to do is cause a paradigm shift in where our fibers come from and responsible use of materials,” Kostell said.

In their pole barn studio, they file samples of each type of paper they’ve produced, along with meticulous “recipes” of the fiber blends, cooking and beating times, with test results indicating how the paper responds to various printing processes and inks. “We can use our papers for screenprint, letterpress, inkjet printers, digital offset printers and Xerox iGen, so I think it has contending viability in the marketplace,” Benson said.

The fibers sources, however, are just the first step of the transformation. Benson and Kostell constantly tweak the entire papermaking process to make it as environmentally sustainable as possible. It begins at the U. of I.’s Sustainable Student Farm, where farm director Zack Grant supplies them with bales of agricultural waste. Instead of using additives to blanch their fibers, they lighten the color through “ultraviolet bleaching” (letting vines sit out in the sun) or blend it with naturally white cotton fiber (scraps from a textile manufacturer’s waste stream). They also produce papers with earthy hues instead of bright white. “There are all these beautiful tones that people could be using,” Kostell said, “especially if they’re not doing much but printing black ink on it.”

The grasses, vines and stalks have to be dried, chipped and then boiled with soda ash to neutralize the acids and remove the pithy material that surrounds the long fibers. The resulting slurry is circulated through a “beater” (similar to a meat grinder) for about an hour to further break down the fibers, then mixed into a vat of water. When a mould and deckle (a rectangular framed mesh screen) is dragged through the vat, fibers adhere to the mesh, creating a watery sheet of paper. Over the next 24 hours, each sheet gets squeezed, pressed and dried.

Benson and Kostell collect rainwater to cook the fibers, and recycle the water from the fiber vats using a micro-filtering process developed by the Prairie Research Institute’s Sustainable Technology Center. They are currently researching ways to use solar energy or bio-char to fuel the cookers, and plan to use the Sustainable Student Farm’s electric tractor for chipping as soon as they’re able to expand the Fresh Press operation.

“One of the things we’re trying to do with this fiber investigation is model a closed-loop system,” Kostell said, “reducing our reliance on municipal water and fossil fuel as much as we can.”

Their project has received grants from the U. of I.’s Student Sustainability Committee, the Campus Research Board, and the College of Fine and Applied Arts. Fresh Press won a 2013 (Re)Design Award from AIGA, the professional association for design. They have fulfilled commissions from the U. of I.’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and the office of the university president. Their largest job so far was producing more than 250 sheets of 12-by-18 inch prairie grass paper for the Student Sustainability Committee. The paper was sent to the university’s document services shop, where a Xerox iGen quartered and trimmed the sheets, yielding more than a thousand cards.

Benson and Kostell believe their venture could eventually aid the local economy by paying farmers for their agricultural waste. “Using that existing stream of fiber will be a lot more of a socially and environmentally friendly way of stewarding the land,” Benson said.

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