Rock Paper: For Tree-Less Photo Printing

Remember the Rosetta Stone, made in 196 B.C? , It's still legible if you can find a cipher. Twenty two hundred years later, we have "rock paper", a newly-introduced computer photo print paper made "tree-free" and with powdered limestone as the major feedstock. Won't last as long as the Rosetta, but it looks like an improvement, which we'll get into after some circumspection. Photographic imagery became relatively short-lived in the confusing transition from press or chemical printing to digital. How many of our readers, for example, know whether their photo prints will outlast, or die before, their digital media? While color negatives from chemical photography typically hold up well for a at least a few decades, it is highly unlikely that that your grandchildren will be able to make use of today's digital "negatives". Whatever prints get handed down is what they'll be stuck with. Out hope is that computer printer designers can find a way to have customers pass on their vision and experiences without obligating their heirs to buying new technology several times each generation. It's the "less stuff" mantra, with a trans-generational slant.
Back in the days of Cibachrome prints you could take a color shot and be assured that the result could look the same in a half century. The tradeoff was a development chemistry that was complex, expensive, and somewhat hazardous for process workers. The more common color development processes were relatively benign, but gave results that are far less long-lived.

These days, with a market shift to small portable, photo-printers, like the pictured model from HP, chemical hazards and resource consumption issues have moved from the professional lab to the home. Skipping the camera store, we can print fewer images, saving resources. But, with the notable exception of HP's Photosmart, most small photo printers require you to buy paper and ink cartridges in a bundle pack. It's a business model made to capture your dollars and consume extra packaging. If you deplete one item faster than the other, too bad. Found a paper with great archival characteristics; there's no way to buy the ink separately. Sale priced house brand paper? Tough luck. Unless, that is, you get a model such as the HP Photosmart, which sells ink cartridges and paper separately!

Editorial aside: we think that recyclable photographic printing paper is an irrelevant idea (different than photo paper made of recycled fibers). The point is to make prints as beautiful and long lasting as possible. Longevity and image quality outweigh recycled content in importance, in other words.

Wet Negs/Hard Drives/CD's
Let's suppose you or one of your photo-heirs is affected by a, leaky roof, plumbing leak, flood, or hurricane. With chemical photo negatives it is possible to dry them out to good as new if they are rescued with a matter of hours or days (not always feasible though obviously). The odds are not so good for rescuing an older hard drive. Who knows how long a photo CD would hold up when wet? Grandpa's computer with the CD reader will certainly not hold up to a wetting.

Wet Prints
A wet black and white print can can be rescued if you get to it before the mold does. But a color print is unlikely to come back to life with original quality. After a splash or immersion the dyes begin to leach, mold follows; and, ordinarily, curling and wrinkling result.

Rock Paper Water?
It is common knowledge that printing papers for magazines and photography are coated with finely divided calcium carbonate: billions of tiny rock bits are impregnated, a la' Rosetta. The carbonate coated fiber matrix is then overcoated with resins to make them brighter and hold onto the printing ink.

What if someone made a photographic print paper that was mainly rock? And had no water absorbing cellulose at all? Well, they have! A photo print paper is just now coming to market which is a lot more Rosetta-like and has a lot less tree. In fact, it is 80% calcium carbonate and 20% HDPE (polymer) at the core, with various ink absorbing and water proofing resin coats on the outer layers. For the time being the product name is "Rock Paper".

We were given some samples of this "tree free" photo printing paper to try and found it quite interesting. Before we could try it out we had first to take a trip to "Staples" to figure out which printer to buy The Epson "PictureMate" promoted it's archival ink, but gave no option for non-Epson paper. So HP Photosmart it was.

We printed the same picture first on 4 X 6 inch format HP matte paper and then a second time on the sample 4X6 matte finish "Rock Paper". The prints appeared almost identical. Though, in bright light, we think the HP paper had a bit more brilliance.

Next came the flood test. After two hours in a pan of water the image printed on HP paper got quite blurry; colors bled and changed; and the coating resin turned slippery. On drying, it's edges curled up severely. Much better for the Rock Paper sample. Only a little bit of red ink bled. No blurring or resin disolution at all. Upon drying it returned to being flat and looked almost identical to an unwet copy of the print. Here's the result, shown as a picture of two almost dried, overlapping computer prints. [Note that the overall graininess is partly an artifact of reducing the digital file size as a convenience for those readers with "dial up".]

Here are some of the test "Rock Paper" specs:
• Glossy has a 10.4 mil thickness.
• Matte finish is 8 Mil.
• Very durable, tear resistant.
• Smear resistance high.
• Good archival qualities.
• No trees or other wood by-products added.
• Resolution 3000 dpi+

The soon-to-be distributor of the Rock Paper, John Shu, states that "our mission and expectation of this product is to simply give the eco-conscious buyer a viable option to conventional paper printing that is both comparable in price and quality whereby reducing the need to cut down another tree" Note: TreeHugger does not sell anything. If you have comments or questions, please direct them to John Shu at PAPERROCKS@GMAIL.COM

We think the Rock Paper product has promise; but the test printing experience surfaced for us the serious long range resource consumption and archival storage issues associated with consumer digital photography.

From a TreeHugger view, the ideal business model for photo printers would match archival quality color inks with archival quality papers. The paper and inks would be highly water, stain, and mold resistant, and the maker would sell the works in minimalist packaging, with an option to buy components separately.

If in another century, our digital "negs" are lost or separated from a treasured print, at least we consumers of today would have done the best we can to keep history alive for future generations. New mantra: today's business model is tomorrow's cipher.