Central Illinois Business Magazine

Fresh press

Agri-fiber paper lab making sustainable paper


The posters on which a student group advertises its event. The drink caddies the local coffee shop uses. The carton holding the eggs that will make your breakfast omelette. Two University of Illinois professors hope these items, and more, will eventually come from papers made of prairie grasses or agricultural waste.

Steve Kostell and Eric Benson, both professors in the UI School of Art and Design, are experimenting with processes to use indigenous plants and agricultural waste in making environmentally friendly paper products.

Kostell was already making paper from natural fibers, and Benson's interest is in sustainable design practices. Through hallway conversations, the two decided to establish a papermaking project, and they started Fresh Press with a grant from the UI's Student Sustainability Committee.

Kostell and Benson use the stalks of various prairie grasses, including big bluestem, goldenrod, sunflower, and coneflowers; the stalks of harvested corn, soybeans and rye; and tomato vines in their papers. Most of their raw materials come from the UI Sustainable Student Farm.

Kostell and Benson are identifying the characteristics of various fibers and experimenting with how they might be best applied. For example, rye is exceptionably flexible while sunflower is quite brittle. They can also adjust the process to make the paper quite coarse or very fine.

They use cotton waste from the textile industry to blend with their fibers. The cotton fibers help the materials bind together, add softness, density and flexibility to their papers and also lighten the color.

Fresh Press is influenced by craft beer brewers in its branding, Benson said, describing their project as a "microbrewery of paper."

"We're trying to develop a model that can be used anywhere, depending on the regional varieties (of fibers) available, either through agricultural waste or indigenous plants," Kostell said.

This spring, they'll be getting molds to make prototypes of paper plates, drink caddies and egg cartons from papers made from various fibers.

They are also looking at how to make their papermaking processes more sustainable. For example, they recycle the water they use and supplement it with rainwater; they are looking into using biochar, or compressed agricultural pellets, for cooking the fibers; and they'd like to add solar panels to their studio.

Kostell and Benson have received commissions from several campus groups for small print runs and artists have experimented with the paper for their projects.

Kostell and Benson are working toward developing commercial processes that are sustainable, and they are deciding on funding options.

"It's a big leap from hand papermaking to commercial papermaking," Kostell noted.

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Editor's Note

Welcome Home

With spring comes the season for homebuying and homebuilding. I’ve noticed homes in my neighborhood have been selling more quickly than in the past few years. And several homebuilders I talked with for this issue’s cover story are optimistic about what this season will bring.

The Home Builders Association of East Central Illinois will have its Showcase of Homes in the Prairie Meadows subdivision in Savoy from June 12 to 22 — the first showcase in five years. I’m looking forward to checking it out and seeing the craftsmanship of area homebuilders.

Also in this issue, we have a profile of architect Andrew Fell, who has designed both single-family homes and numerous apartment buildings in our community.

Two University of Illinois professors are hoping they can influence the paper industry to be more environmentally friendly. They’re experimenting with making paper from native prairie grasses and agricultural waste. Read about them in the Innovation feature.

Enjoy this issue, and the spring season.

Jodi Heckel is editor of Central Illinois Business magazine. She can be reached at 217-351-5695 or jheckel@news-gazette.com.