Last week, I had the wonderful opportunity of meeting with Eric Benson, who is one of the founders of the incredible project that is Fresh Press here at UIUC. If you dont already know, Fresh Press is an agri-fiber paper-making lab on the Illinois campus that explores how a collaboration of farmers, artists, designers, and academics can revitalize a manufacturing industry in the Midwest. They collaborate with the Sustainable Student Farm (SSF) and the Woody Perennial Polyculture (WPP) site, and aim to grow student opportunities through individual and collaborative research and public engagement efforts.
This idea for the project came to life in 2012 after it received funding from the SSC. Professors Steve Kostell and Eric Benson came up with the idea after spending some time wondering if paper made from agricultural residue or “waste” could help make the paper industry sustainable. They thought that by switching the supply chain from the forest to the farm, they could reduce greenhouse gas emissions, restore wildlife, and help American farmers. Turns out, they were right.
Since then, the project has grown exponentially. They now have a lab located in research park where they make paper from a variety of different wastes from the farm harvest, like corn and soy stalks, tomato or eggplant vines and native prairie grasses. What I found most incredible about this project is their dedication to sustainability in every possible way. They are not only conscious about their environmental impact in the creation of the paper itself, but also in every other step of the process as well. From the Sustainable Student Farm to Fresh Press to the South Quad, their paper only travels a total of 4.4 miles emitting about 4 lbs of greenhouse gases (if we drive!). Compared that to tree-fiber paper which has to travel around 2.700 miles from the Boreal Forests in British Columbia Canada to paper mills in Wisconsin and finally here to campus, you save 2353 lbs of greenhouse gases by transportation from entering our atmosphere.
Additionally, if one factors in manufacturing, their paper continues to prevent even more greenhouse gas emissions. This is because the paper and notebooks are handmade by a small group of dedicated and talented students who believe in hard work, beautiful paper, and and a better future through economic and environmental sustainability. They are undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Illinois who not only hand pull sheets of corn, soy, or prairie grass paper, but also plant, weed, and harvest them on the sustainable student farm.
In an effort to get a sense of what the project is like from an inside perspective, I consulted a student who works in the lab. When asked why she became interested in Fresh Press, student Cynthia Liu responded:
“Fresh press gave me an opportunity to actually step into the field of sustainability which is something I care about a lot. When I saw the pictures of trash islands, and how seabird/fish’s stomach are stuffed with plastic debris, and sea turtle’s nostril has plastic straw, which made me feel so bad. And I become more aware of how serious the impacts of human action is making on animals. We seem to take everything for granted: styrofoam cups/containers in restaurants, papers, plastic bags, without thinking about the consequences before making the choice to use them. In fresh press we tried to use organic materials, even for packaging, and i just feel amazed by how pretty the end product turned out to be. The papers are made out of recycled student artworks, which were supposed to be in trash by now if we didn’t reuse it. It’s not only bringing trash back to life, but also reducing landfill pollution.”