I’ve been virtual pals with designer Eric Benson since 2006 when he first launched Re-nourish, a website dedicated to the principles of greener graphic design. That was right around when I started working as a blogger and I’ve been a fan, reader and friend of his every since. Through the power of Facebook, I’ve been able to keep up to date on his work and knew that I wanted to interview him for MNN once I started reading about his new project, Fresh Press. Fresh Press is all about turning agricultural waste into paper. Eric and his partners Steve Kostell, Brian Wiley, and their students at the University of Illinois have built a robust paper-making laboratory and are running experiments focused on turning locally available farming waste into paper.

Eric grew up in Michigan and graduated from the University of Michigan with a BFA in graphic and industrial design. After a stint working as a UI/UX designer for Razorfish and Texas Instruments, he got an MFA in design from the University of Texas at Austin. His MFA thesis project became his sustainable design site Re-nourish. Eric currently works as an associate professor of graphic design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has lectured and been published widely on the importance of sustainable design and received many awards for his work. When he’s not trying to improve how the world makes paper, he serves as co-host on the “irreverent pop culture podcast" "Damian Duffy Hates Everything.”

Here are seven questions for Eric Benson, designer and ag-waste paper guru.

MNN: How did the idea for this project come to life?

Eric Benson: In 2011, my colleague Steve Kostell and I had a few hallway conversations between classes (and over some evening beers) about how we could work together, as we were both at a crossroads in our academic careers. Steve, as a designer and printmaker, had over a decade of experience with hand papermaking, while my interest in paper came from my evangelizing alternative fiber papers as a more sustainable option through my website. Paper was clearly the overlap in our individual work, and since every discipline uses it, we felt we could find even more collaborators. This quickly came true as Zack Grant, the manager of the University of Illinois Sustainable Student Farm (SSF), offered to let us use his agricultural residue and land to grow prairie grasses. This research relationship attracted an Illinois architecture professor Jeff Poss, who tasked his graduate students to design and build a temporary structure on the farm to provide a place for everyone involved with Fresh Press and SSF to work. We call it the 'Wash & Pack Pavilion'. As we harvested and used the fibers on the farm seasonally, we began calling ourselves “the microbrewery of paper.”

Eric Benson

Steve Kostell (left) and Eric Benson collaborated over their shared interest in paper, and the Fresh Press project was born. (Photo: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

How scalable is what you’re doing? Is the future magic in the materials, the recipes, the processes, or all of the above?

It’s hopefully scalable (depending on corporate interest) and also transportable to anywhere on the planet. We are using the art of handmade papermaking to test fiber qualities that eventually will be patented. That intellectual property will be licensed to the paper and pulp industries to be used in packaging and potentially commercial paper. Our thoughts are that the pulp packaging industry holds the greatest promise as it can be more flexible in its material choices as opposed to the commercial paper industry, which requires exact precision in the fiber lengths that pass through its machinery and sheet-forming processes. 

Does the world need saving?

We need saving. The world will be OK. It’s been through a lot over its billions of years of existence. However, humans are a lot more fragile. We must explore and invest in renewable energy sources and sustainable materials so that we as a civilization can continue.

Who is one person in your space who you admire and why?

Timothy Barrett. He’s a MacArthur Genius Award winner for his papermaking in Iowa. He’s an incredible influence on not only our work but the research of many others across the globe.

What’s the future hold for Fresh Press? Where would you like to see it in five years?

We are hoping we can focus on licensing our intellectual property to the pulp packaging industry and also further explore how we can help make that market sector more sustainable through agricultural residue. After some industry conversation, we now realize this is going to take a lot of buy-in and time, so unless there is some heavy investment now, five years is possibly a good timeframe for us to realistically imagine our work going more mainstream. We’d also love to employ people and hopefully inspire similar changes in other market sectors.

Fresh Press paper brands

Different blends of Fresh Press paper

What has surprised you the most so far in your work with Fresh Press?

I think what has surprised us the most is how quickly it’s moved forward. We’ve been fortunate to get grant funding and support from our network of academics, students and artists/designers. We’ve been invited to come talk at conferences at universities and had some positive press coverage. It’s really nice to see that there are other people interested in this idea.

(Shea's note: I asked Eric to come up with and answer his own question here.)

What’s your favorite fiber you’ve used thus far?

Rye by a mile! Rye is a very flexible and strong fiber that makes some really strong and gorgeous blue-green paper that we think has a lot of commercial possibilities. Farmers are currently using rye as a cover crop on their lands over the winter because it helps with soil nutrition. The SSF has grown rye with this logic in mind and has been happy to give us all the rye we can harvest every spring. Rye beers and whiskeys are also great, so we’d be happy to explore not only their products but agricultural residue as well!

Paper samples ag waste

Paper samples made from agricultural waste (Photo: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

To see more of Eric’s work or to contact him, visit his website at EricBenson.info.

Want to read more about paper? Check out these stories on MNN:

How to make your own wrapping paper

Woody Harrelson fights for the forests with his tree-tree paper company

Recycling isn’t new: America’s long paper trail dates to 1600s

Are you on TwitterFollow me (@sheagunther) there, I give good tweets. And if you really like my writing, you can join my Facebook page and visit my homepage.

Shea Gunther is a podcaster, writer, and entrepreneur living in Portland, Maine. He hosts the popular podcast "Marijuana Today Daily" and was a founder of Renewable Choice Energy, the country's leading provider of wind credits and Green Options. He plays a lot of ultimate frisbee and loves bad jokes.

There's got to be a better way to turn ag waste into paper
And design professor Eric Benson plans to find it. Find out how he got started on his mission and what the future holds for his new project, Fresh Press paper.