Not many things last forever, but we’ll never run out of yesterdays. And it’s a good thing, since we seem to return to them over an over. Whether it’s music, clothing, or hair styles, sooner or later, everything old is new again. We are often fascinated with our own childhoods, whether introducing our baffled offspring to the films or shows of our youth, or combing a garage sale in search of a particular toy or comic book. Our children, on the other hand, find the suits or shoes we once wore funny and fun—kitschy as opposed to hip, but nonetheless a great subject for ironic infatuation. They sneer, then chuckle, then adopt and modify.
We do the same with technology of course. As a society, we periodically lay down our favorite toys, only to find our selves returning to them periodically in search of what was charming about them. We pick them up find some heretofore unforeseen use, if we can just make a little tweak. That’s how incandescent bulbs become fluorescent, and then LEDs. It’s why roundabouts have returned to replace traffic lights in neighborhoods across the country. However old they may be, they solve a modern problem in a new setting. The Paper Water Bottle is just such an example; it’s roots (pun intended) are deep in age old technologies that when modified solve uniquely modern dilemmas.
The practice of molding plant fibers to various practical uses is ancient indeed. The oldest identified fibers put to human use are flaxen, found in an excavation in the Republic of Georgia. 34,000 years ago, they were used make shoes, thread or, most pertinent for our intentions, woven baskets—a container, in other words. More recently, the Egyptians used a plant called papyrus to make sheets of writing material to begin administering a substantial bureaucracy, bringing with it the first “pencil pushers” and some of the earliest paperwork.
Of course, it wasn’t officially paper until we began mashing our plant fibers into pulp first, then drying them out in large sheets. That was probably as recent as 1800 years ago. Since then, those two ideas—plant-based containers and forms, and fiber-base pulp dried into a useful shape, have evolved considerably. Lest anyone doubt, the International Molded Fiber Association notes four different types of molded fiber products available for an ever-widening range of uses.
- Thick-Wall products are the kind used for heavier items, like the pots nurseries sell their flowers in.
- Transfer Molded fiber products arrive in our homes every day, as the packaging that holds our electronic devices tightly in their shipping containers, or keep eggs from cracking on the way from farm to fridge.
- Thermoformed fiber products begin to resemble plastic in density and smoothness.
- Processed fiber products require treatment of some kind beyond molding and curing. They may be colored or have special additives.
Quite a change from a few woven baskets or rough sheets of pulp. The advantages are clear enough: production with almost no waste and a path for clear return to the environment. Of course, wood is the pulp most often associated with paper, itself the most common pulp use case we imagine. But that’s actually misleading. Pulp’s popularity is growing because it can be produced from so many alternatives, like wheat or bamboo—any number of fast-growing and highly renewable plant sources.
Those are modifications that matter, on an ancient and proving technology. As a society, we’re smart to give it another look, and not leave it in the attic with the poodle skirts, leisure suits, and parachute pants. It’s stood the test of time. Plastic, by comparison, is just a baby. Will it last? Ask me in 34,000 years.