Tuesday, July 23, 2002

Go ahead, examine the back of that legal pad.

When I was in New England a couple of weeks ago, I drove past a paper mill in central Massachusetts. Situated right on a river (as paper mills tend to use a great deal of water), with an outdoor storage yard for low-quality scraps stored in large compressed bales.

The sight of this paper mill reminded me of something I learned from a manager at a paper company several years ago. He told me about the cheapest grade of cardboard, a weak grayish variety called chipboard (not to be confused with the lumber product known as flakeboard, sometimes misidentified as chipboard, or the pseudo-lumber product trade-named masonite, also sometimes mistakenly called chipboard, though the generic name is fiberboard, typically low-density fiberboard).

This cheap cardboard is most often used for low-strength non-corrugated boxes, for the corrugation layers of low-grade corrugated cardboard, and for various other purposes, such as the backing for steno and legal pads. The color can range from grayish brown to brownish gray, and the surface is flecked with small, irregular dark spots.

The paper man (not made of paper, but identified with his industry) related to me the typical environment at a paper mill. Warm, moist enclosed spaces where the pulp is boiled, locations often near rivers, outdoor storage of the low-grade ends and mixed paper. He told me about how rats are typically fond of such environments, and often burrow into the bales that sit around for a while. He then explained that when it came time to make chipboard, the process was so quick and rough that they would pretty much crane-pick the whole bales and drop them right into processing vats containing boiling water and agitated pulp. Most impurities that might be present are not an issue for such a low-level product, and can just be ground up with the pulp and ride along to become part of the chipboard. And the rats and rat nests which are commonly part of the bales? Yes, those too, right in with the mix.

No worries, all disease is totally destroyed in the vigorously boiling vats. But go ahead, take a look at the back of a legal pad. Look at the dark specks. Some, maybe most of those specks are various miscellaneous impurities. But a few of them, no telling which ones, have a more animated history.


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