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Weekend Science Fun: Recycling Paper

Our recycling paper activity this week requires more materials and time than most of our previous projects, but is fun and can become an enjoyable hobby. It can also be messy.

Gather:

  • Either a blender or hand blender – probably should be dedicated to making paper, because the paper dulls the blades.
  • Water source and measuring cup
  • Paper to recycle
  • Optional 1:  dried flowers, glitter, cotton dryer lint, etc.
  • Optional 2:  seeds to make seed cards
  • Waterproof bin to hold the wet paper pulp, large enough to accommodate your largest deckle/mold
  • Sponges
  • Towels or felt to spread out wet paper for drying
  • A deckle/mold*
  • Tray to hold paper while sponging (optional, but helpful)

*A mold is basically a window screen stretched tightly over a wooden picture frame and stapled, and the deckle is another frame of the same size overlaying it to form the pulp into shape. You can buy them or make your own. I would recommend you have multiple deckles/molds on hand if you are working with several (impatient) young children.

Set up in an area where a wet mess will be easy to clean up. Probably outdoors would be best at first.

The following instructions have worked for us. If you do some research, I’m sure you’ll find a number of other methods. Be sure to play around and see what gives the best results for you.

First, tear up the paper to be recycled into pieces roughly two inches in diameter or smaller. You only need a few sheets at first. Try papers with different textures, such as construction paper scraps, old newspapers, used computer paper, etc. Colored paper is fun. We found construction paper gave us a fine, smooth paper that was flexible. If we used a lot of newspaper, the resulting paper tended to be thicker and lumpier. Find the mix you like best.

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Add paper scraps from one piece of paper into the blender with four cups of water. Blend until the paper is no longer recognizable and looks “pulpy.” Pour into the waterproof bin. Repeat five times. After that, use less water, either two or three cups depending on the type of paper and how strong your blender is. Only make as much as you think you will use.

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If you are using a hand blender, you might want to soak the paper with water in the bin overnight before pulping. This loosens the fibers. You could even compare soaked overnight versus not soaked and see how the resulting paper looks and feels.

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Once you have enough pulp, add your optional 1 materials and stir them in. You may add them over time or compare different additions in different batches. Swirl your pulp so the fibers are suspended evenly.

Place the mold/screen on a surface and line up the deckle on top of it. Firmly grasp the two pieces together at the sides. Make sure your thumbs stay on the deckle frame and don't slip into the screen, or you will have paper with thumb-shaped grooves in the sides.

Now show the children how to dip the mold/screen and deckle sandwich into the pulp (deckle side up), swirl it and then gently lift straight out. Capture an even layer of pulp, while the water passes though. This step is definitely an art. Play around with it. If you are disappointed with an uneven pass, you can dump the pulp back in and start again. Paper is forgiving that way.

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The wooden frame is the deckle. You can use other shapes, like embroidery hoops or large cookie cutters, to hold the pulp into shape as well.

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Here is a screen mold that has a plastic support, after the deckle is removed. We use a tray to catch the spilling pulp and water.

If you’d like to make seed cards, now is the time to sprinkle some seeds (optional 2) into the surface of the pulp. Spread them about as far apart as the package recommends. If they are too close, you can always tear the card apart for planting.

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Once the pulp is ready, it is time to press out the excess moisture. Our commercial paper making set came with a second screen. Set the second screen on top of the pulp, if you have one. Then press the pulp with sponges to remove excess water. Wring the sponge and press again. Hint:  the more water you remove at this step, the less time it takes to dry. Encouraging the children to spend time at this step also allows others to be scooping out their pulp at the same time.

Now set the paper onto your felt or towels and gently peel away the screen. Note:  if you use towels, check for textures in the fabric. Any textures in the towel will often transfer into the paper. If you choose felt, which is smooth, make sure it is colorfast beforehand.

I like to lay our towels/felt on the top of our clothes dryer. It is a flat surface I don’t use, and the heat from when the dryer is running speeds up drying time.

Warning:  never dispose of paper pulp down the drain. If you have pulp left, let the kids press it into small molds or shape it free form and let it dry. The thicker the form, the longer it will take to dry.

Although thought of as an art, there are schools that teach paper-making science. Think of ways to change how you make the paper and then test for differences in your final product. What kind of characteristics could you measure? I have seen recipes for paper that call for an addition of cornstarch, and read elsewhere that cornstarch makes the paper more likely to mold and/or give off bad odors. How would you test this? If you think up and perform an experiment with recycled paper, be sure to let us know.

For more information:

Making Your Own Paper by Marianne Saddington

The Papermaker's Companion: The Ultimate Guide to Making And Using Handmade Paper by Helen Hiebert

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