The Fresh Press project creates a zero waste alternative to paper-making

Inside a small, yellow, metal-sided building on the University’s South Farms, two professors and two research assistants are converting crops and agricultural bi-products into sustainable paper.

The project, called Fresh Press, began as a collaborative effort between graphic design associate professor Eric Benson and assistant professor Steve Kostell two years ago. Last year, it received funding from the Student Sustainability Committee, the University’s Research Board and the College of Fine and Applied Arts.

“We call ourselves the microbrewery of paper,” Benson said. “We follow the model where if it’s in season and harvestable, we use it.”

The sustainable papermakers get the majority of their agricultural products, like corn stalks, miscanthus and prairie grass, from the Sustainable Student Farm. This season, about one thousand prairie grass seeds were planted for Fresh Press at the farm. Benson said they also use any unused miscanthus grass from biofuels projects on campus and prairie grass from a fellow artist’s backyard.

Megan Diddie, research assistant and graduate student in Fine and Applied Arts, said the paper made in Fresh Press’s studio also creates less of an impact on the environment in terms of transportation.

“We have the material here in the Midwest, so why would we ship parts of another country’s trees to the United States?” Diddie said. “It just seems like we could just make that process so much more efficient, create so much less waste and bring these industries back to the states.”

There are several different formulas that have been created, adding the right mixture of agricultural by-products with cotton for more weight and beating it for the right amount of time to get a specific texture. One type of paper is called “Unleashed Mutt” because of the wet-dog-like smell the mixture produces before it gets converted into paper.

The papermakers avoid using chemicals in their process, unlike typical paper production. Because of this, and the non-acidic nature of their materials, the paper will not turn yellow over time.

“We are basically trying to use what is ‘waste’ to society right now to show that there is no real waste in nature,” Benson said.

Eva Chertow, research assistant and graduate student in library and information sciences, said the future of books was a huge topic of conversation. She said although there is a common perception that everything is going digital, this is not the reality.

“If you look at statistics, there were more books published last year than the year before,” Chertow said.

Fresh Press has been supplying paper to Book Arts Co-op on campus and is currently working on letter-pressing Carl Sandburg poems for the president of the University. Because funding comes from the University, Fresh Press has solely been focusing on University-related projects, although Benson said there have been at least two dozen requests from other places.

Chertow said she hopes their operation will expand to meet the needs of these outside requests.

“We’ve gotten so many requests for paper that it seems we could sell this — we probably should,” Benson said.

Claire can be reached at [email protected]