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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Joy of Paper

Air Date: Week of

In the U.S. we cut lots of trees and recycle some paper to make more paper. But, in Mexico, at least one business makes paper out of ordinary household trash. Tatiana Schreiber made the discovery during a recent visit to Chiapas, and it got her thinking about both technology and work.


CURWOOD: In the US, we cut lots of trees and recycle some paper to make more paper. But in Mexico, at least one business makes paper out of ordinary household trash. Tatiana Schreiber made the discovery during a recent visit to Chiapas, and it got her thinking about technology and work.

(Ambient voices, flowing water)

SCHREIBER: I'm in San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, and I've wandered into the sunny courtyard of Taller Leñateros. It's a worker-owned company making handmade paper. They also produce cards, posters, books, and a literary magazine. Ambar Pazt, who started the business, shows me around.

PAZT: There's big piles of flower stems that we get from the churches. There are dried banana stalks from banana trees, which are usually burned after they produce their bananas. There's (splashing water) huge buckets and bins...

MONTOYA: (Speaks in Spanish about gladiolas)

SCHREIBER: Dona Rosalia Montoya is one of about 20 workers in the shop. She explains how she mixes up pulp from plant fibers in a big tank of water and then scoops some onto a screen mold to make the paper. Then she lays out the wet sheets on metal trays to dry in the sun. The process is simple. The result is beautiful. And Ambar says the materials are practically free.

PAZT: You know, these gladiola stems are, they've been in the church for a week and they are thrown in the garbage. So, it's a great satisfaction to feel that you're making something out of nothing. (Crunching sounds)

(Radio music in the background)

SCHREIBER: Paper making here isn't exactly efficient. But in its very inefficiency, some of the best designs emerge and new production techniques are born. In fact, they recently switched to a bicycle-powered machine to beat pulp, because it makes a higher-quality paper than the industrial electric blender they used before.

(Metallic sounds)

PAZT: As you can see here, it has a bicycle chain. It has a bicycle sprocket wheel...

SCHREIBER: It strikes me that Taller Leñateros stands in opposition to the digital age, where all our time is spent communing with computer screens.

(Splashing water)

SCHREIBER: The courtyard is blooming with gladiolas, carnations, pansies, and other plants used in the paper. I'm reluctant to leave this place full of color and scents, like eucalyptus and calendula. On the way out, Ambar shows me the storeroom shelves piled high with paper in every imaginable shade.

PAZT: This is made out of old Mayan skirts, which eventually become threadbare. And they're dyed with indigo and we buy them and cut them in little pieces and grind them up...

SCHREIBER: Here, work celebrates things of substance and texture made by human hands. The shop's logo is an ink print of a hand, one of the oldest images found in rock art. Ambar says one of Taller Leñateros's goals is to recycle disappearing Mayan art, language, and stories. As the world plummets into the electronic age, it might be wise to think about what other treasured parts of life and work we can reclaim before they disappear.

PAZT: This is made out of migueta, look at...

SCHREIBER: For Living on Earth, I'm Tatiana Schreiber.

PAZT: ... and it has a few flowers in it; I really like it...



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